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FBI Dive Teams - Underwater Evidence Collection

FBI Dive Teams
Underwater Evidence Collection

08/08/05

Dive team members

What happens when a body, a murder weapon, or other incriminating evidence ends up on the bottom of a lake? Or if a ship or harbor is attacked by terrorists?

We call in our FBI dive teams.

Our underwater experts can find clues and map out crime scenes in exactly those places and more: under ice, in fast-moving water, around piers and bridges and under extreme underwater conditions like limited and zero visibility.

They’ve got some fancy tools and technologies to help them do their jobs: “side-scan sonar” that can detect debris not only in murky waters but also in mud and silt…underwater metal detectors...dry suits with full face masks and communicators so divers can talk to each other and to colleagues above water...miniature remote-controlled subs that send real-time color video to the surface for on-the-spot identification and that can make videotapes of underwater searches for future use.

We’ve called on our dive teams—now officially known as Underwater Search and Evidence Response Teams, or USERTs—many times over the years since the first one was launched in 1982. For example:

  • When TWA Flight 800 exploded over the Atlantic in 1996, our New York team helped scour a 40-square mile patch of the ocean floor, recovering the remains of all 230 victims and 96 percent of the airplane.
  • Following a kidnapping in California, we used our sonar and small sub to recover four bodies that had been weighted down and dropped in a lake 300 feet deep.
  • In one case, we recovered a handgun buried in three inches of silt in a rushing, murky North Carolina river.
  • Our teams have even traveled overseas to support such investigations as the terrorist attack on the USS Cole.
And sometimes they work in the name of prevention: following the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics, our divers spent many nights checking for possible explosive devices on an underwater structure of a massive stand for 15,000 spectators.

Where are our teams located? In four cities—New York, Washington, Miami, and Los Angeles, with the national program managed by our FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Va. Each 12-member team serves a general territory, but divers fill in on other teams as needed.

These dives may sound like fun, but like any trek into unknown aquatic environments, they’re often difficult and dangerous. Divers endure long bottom times, often in murky water and freezing temperatures, and may bump into uncharted obstacles or hazardous debris. They also face medical conditions like decompression and nitrogen narcosis. That’s why we have a specially-trained medical technician close at hand on each dive mission, and why each mission is meticulously planned and executed.

Want to learn more about underwater evidence recovery? Check out two past articles from our Law Enforcement Bulletin: “Forensic Diving” and “Myths of Underwater Recovery Operations.”

Links: The FBI Lab