Divers, search dogs provide closure

Imagine going into a store blindfolded and trying to find a package of paper plates, or finding a penny in a room with the lights out and your eyes closed - with one hand tied behind your back.AC = -->
"That's pretty close to what it's like diving in the river or a lake, looking for a body," said Sgt. Greg Cobb, commander of the Florence police dive team. "The visibility is usually zero. When I'm searching for a body, my eyes are closed because of the lack of visibility.
"While you're searching, you're feeling along, and at the same time, we're always holding onto a guide rope that is attached in the boat. And you have to know what you're feeling for to make sure you find it."
Members of the department's 11-man dive team were called into action recently when a Giles County, Tenn., man drowned in Elk River near Rogersville. The divers work with cadaver dogs in cases like this one to find victims and end the grievous wait family members endure.
"We know going in, this could be a long deal with a lot of downtime," Cobb said. "But you try to prepare yourself mentally and be ready when it's time."
During the downtime, Cobb said, divers try to keep the mood as light as possible because they know what they're going to face.
"Out of our members, about half have discovered a body during the searches, so our experiences really help us get prepared," he said.
After more than 24 hours from the time the man was reported missing, divers entered the river and found the body submerged in about 38 feet of water.
The area where the body was located was close to where a trained cadaver search dog had indicated a strong scent earlier in the day.
"We're there to help and work with the other emergency responders, the dogs located the spot and we were able to find the body," Cobb said.
Erica Woodside, a dog handler from Franklin, Tenn., was one of the handlers who used bloodhounds to help locate the victim's body.
Woodside said her dog, which is 4 years old, began training to find cadavers when he was 1.
"Really, this comes natural to them. You just teach them what scent it is you want them to find," said Woodside, who also works with a medical flight crew from Vanderbilt Hospital.
"We just work with them to teach them to pick up (the cadaver) scent."
She said trainers use the reward technique.
"It's like a game of hide-and-seek, and when they're successful in finding the scent, they get a reward," she said.
Woodside said the scent from a cadaver will stand in a constant area on water.
"It may flow some with the current, but for the most part, it pretty much stays where the body is," she said.
She said handlers, who have worked with the FBI as well as Interpol, use cadaver dogs with the permission of the state of Tennessee, and train with the dogs in a pond.
"We don't put the cadaver in the water, we use an air pump system to pump the smell into the water and train the dogs to pick it out," she said.
Woodside and Cobb say what they do helps families in a time of need.
"We all got into diving for the fun of it, but that's not why we do (rescue and recovery)," Cobb said. "This is not recreational diving. We're out there strictly to bring closure to the families and assist them any way we can."
Woodside said after the dogs had finished their work, the wife of the victim came to the group and thanked them.
"I always feel for the families, and we're all just trying to help them get past that worst time in their life," Woodside said.
Tom Smith can be reached at 740-5757 or tom.smith@TimesDaily.com.

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