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County divers go through hell and high waters

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DEGRASSE — St. Lawrence County dive master Mark T. Smutz stood on the shore of the Grasse River on Monday, watching his team as it finished another recovery mission.

The divers had just found the body of 21-year-old SUNY Canton student Elliott D. Mullings of Brooklyn.

“I’ve been doing this for just about 27 years, and I have been to this site at least three times,” said Mr. Smutz, of the county Underwater Recovery Team. “One time is too many times.”

Sheriff’s Detective Sgt. Thomas H. Caringi said Monday morning that according to witnesses, the man had ridden down the waterfall on an inner tube, gone under water, resurfaced and then disappeared.

Divers responded Sunday afternoon, searching the black waters of the Grasse River in depths of 5 to 25 feet, Mr. Smutz said.

The dive team, with members from emergency response agencies across St. Lawrence County, does its best to stay focused during rescue and recovery missions, Mr. Smutz said.

“We have a great team because everyone comes together,” Mr. Smutz said. “They leave work and their families for these calls. All the guys and gals here volunteer their services. Nobody gets paid.”

He said that especially in searches like the one for Mr. Mullings, it can be difficult to make sure everyone is kept out of harm’s way.

“There are unpredictable eddies where the current turns, and moves back and swirls in a spot. It will hold you up and suck you under,” Mr. Smutz said. “If you try fighting it, it will hold you in place. So if you try to relax and let the current take you out of that, most of the times it will spit you out and let you go.”

The divers face not just physical danger in low visibility, but the emotional trauma of discovering someone’s loved one, assistant dive master John A. Ashley said.

“This bothers a lot of the divers,” Mr. Ashley said. “Stress comes into play, and we check with our divers to see how they handle a recovery. Everyone handles it a little bit differently.”

A stress debriefing team is available in such cases.

Despite the challenges, Mr. Smutz and Mr. Ashley said team members focus on a central goal in all recovery missions.

“We try to do the best we can to put the families’ hearts and minds at ease and give them some closure,” Mr. Smutz said.

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