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Dive team gives back by risking lives in depths of Lanier
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Dive team commander Corey Gilleland talks about the training that goes into being part of the dive team Wednesday in the Hall County dive team truck. A majority of the dive team members have been on the team for less than two years. - photo by Erin O. Smith

As his officers resurface from the dark depths of Lake Lanier, the hardest call Corey Gilleland has to make is the one to call it quits.

When Gilleland, the Hall County Sheriff’s Office dive team commander, has exhausted all of the possible avenues, he calls his lieutenant to end the search.

“It’s hard for me to do, because I don’t have much give up in me,” he said.

But Gilleland said he has to weigh the risk of the well-being of his officers in often freezing temperatures.

Lt. Bonner Burton said there have already been four confirmed drownings on Lake Lanier this year ahead of the Memorial Day holiday.

The Marine Rescue Team from Hall County Fire Services has “an hour to try and make a difference in the outcome” in a distress call, Fire Services Sgt. William Flesher said.

After that, the rescue mission becomes a recovery mission.

It’s an 11-officer dive team trying to give back, Gilleland said.

“We do a lot of taking away in law enforcement: take dads away, take moms away, take kids away,” he said. “This is truly one of the opportunities — and I think we all feel this way — we can give back, whether it’s a victim of a drowning or a piece of evidence that a prosecutor can use.”

Three tugs on a rope means they’ve found what they’re looking for.

“It’s not a job that most people want to do. We’re in zero-visibility cold water all the time, usually looking for people who have drowned,” Gilleland said.

With the limited visibility below, the dive team members can communicate by radio through their masks in addition to their system of rope tugs.

Patrol Deputy Justin Bonds joined the team in September and has taken part in multiple operations. Starting in 2008 with the Sheriff’s Office, Bonds did not make the cut on the first tryout for the team.

“If you can do it, then you need to be out here,” Bonds said. “You need to give families closure. If it were my loved one, I would want somebody that was able-bodied to go down and get my loved one for me.”

The tryout includes a 400-meter swim, an underwater swim, a water-treading endurance exercise and a brick retrieval tactic.

Applicants also go through an interview before the dive team makes a decision as a unit.

Four of the 11 officers have more than three years of experience while the other officers have less than two years on the team.

On his first mission, Bonds said he left his diving hood in the truck on a winter dive operation searching for evidence.

“I got down under the water and got down to about 6 feet and realized no, I need my hood. It literally felt like somebody was stabbing ice picks through my earholes,”

Even in springtime temperatures, Bonds is never without the hood.

“Once you get cold, it changes everything. It changes your mindset. It changes your body. Learning to take care of the body first and then worry about the operation, that’s the big thing,” he said.

Officers sometimes swim to depths of more than a 100 feet to recover bodies, like in the case of Griffin Prince, 13, whose body was recovered after a June 2012 boating incident on Lake Lanier.

Technology from the Department of Natural Resources has allowed the team to send fewer divers on searches, Gilleland said. The side-scan sonar allows for better detection of their target, and a remote-operated vessel can verify the target with camera equipment.

Gilleland praised the partnership among the Sheriff’s Office, Hall County Fire Services and the Department of Natural Resources.

“We could not do this without those two agencies,” he said.

With the arrival of boating season, Gilleland said he estimates that most of the incidents he’s responded to have had alcohol involved. The dive team commander suggested making sure personal flotation devices are worn and be attentive to alcohol consumption.

Flesher said he advises people to have a boating plan, where loved ones know where you plan to be and how long you plan to be there in case of emergency.