TOBYHANNA ARMY DEPOT, Pa. - Divers from Tobyhanna battled frigid temperatures to help recover a critical piece of firefighting equipment from the bottom of a lake at Fort Indiantown Gap.

At the end of a two-day search, a helicopter was used to lift an 800-gallon container from the murky depths of Marquette Lake. Three divers joined forces with members of the Fort Indiantown Gap Fire Department to pinpoint the bucket's location using a grid-search pattern and a side scan sonar device.

The container is used as a helicopter firefighting tool. Pilots pass low over bodies of water to fill the bucket, then drop its contents to help douse wildfires.

"This was an amazing experience," said Mike Hill, Tobyhanna's assistant fire chief. "We were finally able to put all of our skills and training to the test. They [Fort Indiantown Gap officials] were so happy to recover the item."

"Tobyhanna participation in this mission allowed us to be successful," said Robert Edmiston, fire chief, Fort Indiantown Gap Fire Department. "We were able to support the effort with small boats and manpower, but it was the collaborative effort of both organizations that made it possible to retrieve the bucket."

During the two days, the recovery team developed and implemented a plan to recover the $20,000 container. Divers A.J. Gilgallon, Hill and Keith Dipatri spent hours swimming in near zero visibility while combing the cold lake bottom. Gilgallon is an assistant fire chief at the Tobyhanna Fire Station. Dipatri is a firefighter/emergency medical technician (EMT). Gilgallon was called away after the first day of the search.

"We never expected it to take so long to find the bucket," Hill said. "There were several unexpected challenges we needed to overcome."

Although found only 13 feet under the surface, the divers remarked on how difficult it was to find the bucket, saying visibility in the water could be measured in inches. In addition, the air temperature hovered around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, water surface temperatures dipped to 48 degrees and temperatures dropped to a chilly 39 degrees at the bottom of the lake.

Throughout the search effort, Dipatri interpreted images on the sonar and relayed information to Hill, who was in the water.

Although Dipatri didn't spend as much time in the water, each had to contend with the cold despite the several layers of cold weather clothing under their dry suits.

"Within 30 minutes, my feet were numb," Hill said, explaining that he spent a total of four hours in the water during the search effort. "Late in the second day, I was inches away from the huge hunter orange bag before I saw it."

According to Hill, Marquette Lake is two to three times larger than Barney's Lake, where the depot's dive team hones their skills by participating in a variety of exercises throughout the year.

"The sonar was a big help," Dipatri said, noting that he had to take a crash course in how to use the machine. "It helped us see details that would have been impossible with the naked eye."

A helicopter was called in as soon as the bucket was located and prepped for recovery. The water churned around the divers as the aircraft hovered overhead and a hook was attached to the bucket. During the final stages of the recovery effort, both divers remained in the water.

"Neither of us had worked in such rough waters before," said Dipatri. "The spray and waves created by the helicopter's prop wash were brutal."

Hill and Dipatri agreed that training played a pivotal role in the success of this mission. Each participated in more than 30 dives this year, preparing for the day their skills would be needed.

"I'm proud of all our firefighters, especially the five who have completed training and are capable of doing water rescue and recovery," said Paul Ringheiser, Tobyhanna fire chief. "They initiated this grass roots effort a few years ago to become certified divers to assist in these types of missions."

Dive training seemed the next logical step to protecting the depot community and the members of the public who spend time in or around the water, according to Dipatri.

"We've got all these different types of 'insurance policies,'" he said referencing the fire trucks, ambulances and Hazmat equipment on post. "Extending our training to include water rescue and recovery just made sense."

Dipatri has been diving for 17 years. Hill and Gilgallon have each dived for two years. All are assigned to the Industrial Risk Management's Fire and Emergency Services Division.

Tobyhanna Army Depot is the Defense Department's largest center for the repair, overhaul and fabrication of a wide variety of electronics systems and components, from tactical field radios to the ground terminals for the defense satellite communications network. Tobyhanna's missions support all branches of the Armed Forces.

About 5,600 personnel are employed at Tobyhanna, which is located in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania.

Tobyhanna Army Depot is part of the U.S. Army CECOM Life Cycle Management Command. Headquartered at Fort Monmouth, N.J., the command's mission is to research, develop, acquire, field and sustain communications, command, control computer, intelligence, electronic warfare and sensors capabilities for the Armed Forces.

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16