River Poses Hazard for Dive Teams

A fifth death has been confirmed in the Minneapolis bridge collapse, and the recovery effort continues. Russell Marsolek, leader of the Winona County Dive Rescue Team, talks about the challenges of diving in the Mississippi River.

ALEX COHEN, host:

We go now to Russell Marsolek, who's with the Winona County Minnesota Dive Rescue Team south of Minneapolis. He's not involved in this week's search efforts, but he's been diving in the Mississippi River for more than 30 years. Welcome to the program.

Mr. RUSSELL MARSOLEK (Diver): Thank you for having me.

COHEN: You have been in this river countless times. Can you describe for us what do you see when you're down there in the river?

Mr. MARSOLEK: It really depends upon the time of the year. For instance, if you're diving in the Mississippi River and it's the wintertime, believe it or not the visibility is usually much better than during the summertime. You don't have algae growing. You don't have the border barge traffic kicking up the sand and the silt.

And in the wintertime, you can have anywhere from three to six foot visibility. This time of the year around our area, which is southeastern Minnesota, it's zero visibility. It's called black water diving. There is no visibility on the bottom.

COHEN: So if you can't see anything, how do you look for people?

Mr. MARSOLEK: Everything is done by feel. And we have rope tenders that control us on the surface and give us particular signals and tell us where to turn and things of that nature, because with no visibility you normally will lose your sense of direction and everything else. So it's primarily by feel.

COHEN: And what kind of things are you feeling when you're down there?

Mr. MARSOLEK: You're feeling the bottom for rocks, for stumps, vehicles. You're very, very cautious when you're feeling around because there could be objects there, and of course in the particular case of up north now they have twisted metal, jagged pieces of metal and rebar, which is metal enforcing bars that go into concrete roads, for instance. So you're feeling very, very slowly so that you don't cut yourself, get tangled up, and things of that nature.

COHEN: It sounds very frightening. May I ask what's been the scariest moment for you?

Mr. MARSOLEK: It's very hard to say. You certainly have to practice at this. One of the things that you do practice is literally keeping your own composure. We have individuals who when it's zero visibility like that, they will actually close their eyes because the eyes do nothing underwater when you can't see anyway.

Trying to get all of your energy or all of your focus into your fingertips or what you're feeling, you know, brush up against you, up against your leg or your thigh or whatever, you just learn to very much keep your composure first.

COHEN: Might I ask how you got into doing this?

Mr. MARSOLEK: I've been diving since 1971 and we had no official team in Winona County. And my instructor was actually at a wedding the night before and somebody was missing. And they found the car, and he could not go, and asked if I would go and help do this because he was - he knew the victim. And so I went and that's how I got involved. You know, I can still remember reaching into this vehicle. It was zero visibility there too.

The first thing I found, I found his arm. And I think, yes, I've got him. It wasn't his arm. It was the side of the seat, because it feels just like an arm; it's the same thickness and everything else. And so I learned a very valuable lesson that particular day, and that was whenever I find one now, I go all the way down the arm to make sure there's fingers there.

COHEN: Mr. Marsolek, I would imagine that in the midst of a recovery mission, not a rescue one, there must be a moment when you actually discover a body. I imagine there must be some sadness involved with that, but also perhaps a sense of accomplishment, because that means you're doing your job. What do you go through emotionally in a moment like that?

Mr. MARSOLEK: It's very bittersweet. Because you're right: the satisfaction is you're trying to complete some closure for the families up above. And I mean that's the good, joyous part, if you will. To keep your composure, you find what you're looking for and it's almost like, yes, this is it. And there's time later on, a day or two, a week, even later, even sometimes longer, when you yourself then will go through the down emotion of what you've just done, because it's not pleasurable. It's rewarding, but it's not pleasurable.

COHEN: Russell Marsolek is a diver with the Winona County Sheriff's Department in Minnesota. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MARSOLEK: Well, thank you very much again for having us.

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