Westboro Reservoir is a muddy little body of water just west of the village of Westboro. It’s a popular fishing spot for people in southern Clinton County.
About 25 years ago, I almost died on the bottom of that muddy, little lake.
Most people think of scuba diving as sport. It is a sport, but not in the classic way. There are no goals to score or speed records to set. Scuba allows us air-breathing, mortals to function in the alien environment that exists underwater.
In the late 1970s, as director of respiratory therapy at Clinton Memorial Hospital, I was teaching our hospital staff and the local emergency medical personnel the importance of starting and continuing CPR on a victim of drowning – particularly on anyone who drowned in cold water. It had been found that with specialized resuscitation techniques, cold-water drowning victims could survive underwater for up to an hour.
John O’Rourke, a local educator, Master Instructor of Scuba Diving and a firefighter/EMT, saw my presentation at the Wilmington Fire Department. He wanted to incorporate my lecture into the Search and Recovery Class he taught to scuba teams that specialized in the recovery of drowning victims.
In return for my services, John was going to allow me to attend his class for open-water scuba divers. I jumped at the deal.
Later, I became part of the John O’Rourke dive team.
Not only did we take groups of divers to the Bahamas for the thrill of open-water diving, but we were also available to search for drowning victims, boats, cars or stolen items that might have been thrown into a lake or river.
John and I had many exciting adventures in the warm, clear water of the Caribbean and several exciting and often scary adventures in the cold, dark water of Ohi — including, the muddy water of Westboro Reservoir.
Late one cold night, my phone rang. It was John. The sheriff’s office had called to activate the dive team. Someone near Westboro observed a car rolling into the reservoir. The lights from the car had been visible as it sank beneath the surface. No one knew whether the car was occupied or not. We had to assume the worst.
I always kept my dive gear ready. In no time, my gear was in John’s van as we sped south to Westboro. Our fear was that someone was in the vehicle. If so, we were intent on recovering the person in time for a successful resuscitation.
Although we always taught that people never dive alone, in some search and recovery situations, such as nighttime diving with zero visibility, one diver may be in the water while the second diver is fully geared up, on shore, on standby, available to enter the water immediately if needed.
I entered the water fully geared up. By the tracks, we knew where the car entered the reservoir. I snorkeled out and found it. A layer of gas and oil covered the exact spot. I swallowed a nasty mouthful of the foul stuff. Switching from snorkel to scuba, I dropped beneath the surface. The car sat in the mud in about 10 feet of water.
The windows were open. Reaching into the vehicle, I had to turn sideways to get as far into the car as possible. I groped around looking for a body, hoping that I wouldn’t find one, but ready if I did. The car was empty. We later found out that the car had been stolen. Driving it into the reservoir ended the late-night joy ride.
As I surfaced, I shouted that the car was empty. Returning to the shore, the wrecker operator gave me a large, heavy chain to wrap around the rear axle of the car. Getting the heavy chain back out to the car was not easy. It was exhausting.
I found the right-rear wheel well of the car and draped the chain over the wheel. Then, I wiggled my way down into the mud and worked my left arm through the mud, under the axle to pull the chain through. Things were going well until the car settled deeper into the mud; trapping my arm under the axle. Pull as I might, my arm would not budge.
Being trapped underwater is a fear that many divers have. We always try to keep that fear tucked away in a corner of the brain. But, laying the mud, I could feel the fear start to emerge. I had to keep it in check.
Slowly, I started moving and twisting my arm. I realized that despite being trapped, my arm was starting to shift and turn within the wetsuit. After a few minutes, my wetsuit stretched enough for me to move my arm. I was finally free.
I pulled my fins off as I made my way back onto the shore. I threw the fins toward the van; ripped off my weight belt, tank and buoyance compensator. I left them where they landed.
Taking off my weight suit, steam escaped my overheated body. I cussed my way back to the van. I told John exactly where I left the chain and that I didn’t care if the damn car ever got out of the water.
John made the hook-up. I watched from the van as the wrecker slowly pulled the empty car from the water. By then, I could have cared less. The next day the sheriff’s deputy returned my scuba gear.
I think we are all put on earth to help each other. I’ve always tried my best to do just that, but as I wrestled to get free from beneath that car, the thought of “just trying to be a nice guy” evaporated from my brain just like the steam that later poured from my body.
I still try to be a nice guy. We all need to try to help others… but, there are limits.
Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.