Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team

January 30, 2009

An overview of the role and responsibilities filled by the FBI's Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team (USERT) and their contributions to investigating the US Airways jet that landed in the Hudson River.

Audio Transcript

Mr. Schiff: Hello I’m Neal Schiff and welcome to Inside the FBI, a weekly podcast about news, cases and operations. Let’s take a look at what some called “The Miracle on the Hudson.” A US Airways jet landed in the Hudson River between the New Jersey shoreline and New York City earlier in January. Authorities responded including the FBI’s Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team, USERT.

Mr. Horn: “Our specific role is to support the FBI field offices, primarily, in locating evidence that’s lost underwater or that’s placed underwater and needs to be recovered.”

Mr. Schiff: There were a lot of law enforcement and rescue agencies out there on the very cold river…

Mr. Tyms: “It was ourselves, the FBI; the New Jersey State Police; the New York City Police Department were involved. Obviously the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was coordinating everything. The U.S. Coast Guard was out there; the Army Corps of Engineers was involved.”

Mr. Schiff: Supervisory Special Agent Kevin Horn is assigned to the FBI’s Laboratory Division at Quantico, Virginia. He’s part of the Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team.

Mr. Horn: “The Underwater Search and Evidence Response Team was actually created 25 years ago in the New York office. It was just a New York special; but in the aftermath of September 11 th, it was made a more formal program and that’s when it was brought down to the Laboratory’s Operational Response Section. Right now we are part of the Evidence Response Team Unit and the Evidence Response Team is what’s considered the CSI-type team in other state and local law enforcement agencies.”

Mr. Schiff: Horn and his team were even in Washington, D.C., for the big security effort during the January 20 th inauguration of our new president.

Mr. Horn: “One of the things, just in general I should probably add is, that the component that we’ve added and started to develop these past few years is an underwater post-blast element. The ability to search ports, harbors, the hulls of ships as a safety sweep or as an investigative tool in the event that there’s ever something along the lines of a ‘Cole bombing.’ Now we weren’t anticipating anything like that for the inauguration but we were just there working with a lot of different local agencies in order to patrol the waterways, to patrol the bridges; to use the vantage points of the water to be able to better check and make sure that all of the transfer routes, particularly the routes that the president was going to be driving over were secure.”

Mr. Schiff: At the FBI’s field office in New York, Supervisory Special Agent Mike Tyms is the USERT Dive Team Leader and was out there on the Hudson River as well. He says some members of the team were in Virginia for training and rushed back to New York when they heard what happened and gathered all the necessary equipment.

Mr. Tyms: “First thing we need to do is assess what type of equipment we’re going to need to bring with us and pack that all up in our response trucks. If we’re going to need our boats, we need to put our boats—we don’t normally keep our boats in the water, especially during the winter. So we’d have to put our boats in the water. Get our diving equipment; our sonar equipment; and we usually dive with our surface supplied equipment. So all that equipment has to be checked before we go out on the water. I mean we keep it in a state of readiness but we like to double check it before we’re going to use it. And then we pack it all up and get it ready to go.”

Mr. Schiff: And there’s no shortage of equipment and supplies for the USERT.

Mr. Tyms: “We have some stuff that’s already pre-packed on our trucks and our boats but again each mission is different so each mission requires a separate package, if you will, of equipment. Again, that’s what those last minute details are for is to pack up the specific equipment that we’re going to need, in this case, it turned out to be mostly sonar equipment.”

Mr. Schiff: In case you didn’t know it, Tyms says there’s more than one type of sonar equipment used to hunt for that engine that came off the plane.

Mr. Tyms: “New Jersey State Police used some side-scanning sonar and we brought out our sector scan sonar which are two different types of sonar. And then the New York City Police divers dove to verify the target once it was located with the sonar.”

Mr. Schiff: This wasn’t an easy find. Thankfully, everyone on the airplane is safe. Finding the engine and then raising it from the Hudson were not easy tasks, what with the cold water and ice…

Mr. Tyms: “We had a lot of problems with ice floating down the river; big hunks of ice knocking over our sonar equipment and banging into the boats and knocking us off our position that we were trying to stay in. So that posed some hazards and some difficulties if you will. And then once we had to put the divers in obviously it was a hazard for the divers with ice and other things coming down the river at them. Boat traffic; the Coast Guard did a good job of keeping the boat traffic away from us and the ships coming up and down the river. And the Army Corps of Engineers did a great job of putting the marker in the water right next to the target that we were able to direct them with the sonar.”

Mr. Schiff: A New York Police Department diver eventually confirmed the find as the missing engine and a private company was brought to the Hudson River to raise the jet’s engine. It was on the river’s bottom about 60 feet deep. Back to Kevin Horn of the FBI’s Laboratory USERT. He says FBI Special Agents make up the four Underwater Search and Evidence Response Teams located in New York, Miami, Washington, DC and Los Angeles…

Mr. Horn: “The basic idea of the team is the ability to swim and to scuba dive; it’s basically just more a mode of transportation so that we can get to the bottom just comfortably do the job that we have to do. Agents will typically wind up down there for two or three or four hours at a time on the equipment that we use. But the qualifications start off that any agent can try out as long as they are an experienced diver and they’re certified by a nationally recognized body. Most people are familiar with PADI or NAUI. And then once we run an agent through the tryouts, then we train on every single system and build up the expertise so that the divers can do the job that they need to do.”

Mr. Schiff: The FBI’s USERT has been on a lot of cases over the years working closely with the National Transportation Safety Board and other local, state and federal police agencies. Horn has been on a few of those cases…

Mr. Horn: “The I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis where we were working with Navy divers and the local Minnesota Location Divers; the TWA 800 crash that happened off the coast of Long Island several years ago. We spent about three months diving side-by-side with the Navy on that one. And then one of the other big ones was in the Toledo Bend Reservoir on the border of Louisiana and Texas when we went down there to locate evidence of the crash of the space shuttle Columbia.”

Mr. Schiff: You can see an image of the jet engine at the bottom of the Hudson River on the Internet. The FBI’s dive team’s sonar sector scan picture is at www.fbi.gov. All involved with the amazing safe landing, the fantastic rescue and the complex locating and raising of the lost engine are to be praised. We salute you all. That concludes our show. Thanks for listening. I’m Neal Schiff of the FBI’s Office of Public Affairs.

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