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Friends hope for closure as divers continue search
Sheriffs office is still looking for May 4 drowning victim
Divers from the Hall County Sheriff’s Office Dive Team prepare to go back in the water Friday near Aqualand Marina. The team is continuing its search for Broderick Bradford, who is presumed drowned after falling off a personal watercraft May 4. - photo by Tom Reed

FLOWERY BRANCH — As sheriff’s divers searched the murky depths of Lake Lanier for an eighth day for the body of a Ellenwood man who is presumed drowned, the man’s friends worried that his remains may never be found.

Broderick Bradford was last seen on the lake when his personal watercraft overturned about 100 yards from gas docks at Aqualand Marina early on the night of May 4.

Bradford, a 46-year-old married father of two, was not wearing a life jacket and is believed to have drowned.

But in the three weeks since his disappearance, the 10-man Hall County Sheriff’s Dive Team that routinely finds bodies in a matter of minutes has logged more than 60 hours underwater without success. They were in the lake again Friday, the eighth day of fruitless searching since Bradford was seen going under 26 days previously.

Hall County Sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Tempel, the commander of the dive team, said the scope of the search — more than 5 acres with depths ranging from 30 to 70 feet — is one major hindrance.

"We’ve got a lot of conflicting accounts from witnesses," Tempel said. "It’s a large search area."

Another obstacle is the presence of submerged trees as tall as 30 feet in the lake, which makes grid searches using ropes impractical, and visibility that hovers between 4 feet and zero, depending on the depth and amount of silt in the water. After some rainy days, silt runoff coming from Lanier’s exposed shorelines has made the lake impossibly cloudy for searching, Tempel said.

Divers have not spent this much time looking for a drowning victim in the lake since July 2006, when a man riding a stolen Jet Ski went under near Holiday Marina. The body of 38-year-old Marc Lee Webb of Cumming was never recovered after three weeks of searching. Divers were hampered then as well by vague witness accounts and a large, deep search area to cover.

"There have been several that have gone unrecovered over the years," Hall County Sheriff’s Sgt. Kiley Sargent said.

Sharon Gaston-Johnson, a friend of Bradford’s from Jonesboro, said his friends are concerned that time may be running out in the search efforts. Sheriff’s officials have not yet said when they would end the search.

"You’ll always wonder if he’s out there, if they terminate the search," Gaston-Johnson said. "There’s no closure. Your mind starts drifting — is he really dead? Is he really drowned? Until they find a body, it’s not official."

Any memorial service for Bradford is on hold for now, she said.

Gaston-Johnson said Bradford was a driver for UPS who was a "very nice, fun-loving family man. He’ll be extremely missed."

"He loved sports," she said. "He did not drink or do drugs. He was always real cautious. For him to be out there without a life jacket, that’s what was so shocking to everybody."

Gaston-Johnson said Bradford, who lived with his two boys and wife, often went deep-sea fishing with his father.

"He was on the water a lot," she said. "That’s what’s puzzling — how could he drown?"

Divers haven’t been the only ones looking for Bradford. The Hall County Sheriff’s marine patrol has made surface searches of the area on boats and personal watercraft every day since he went missing.

Sheriff’s officials say in drowning cases, whether bodies rise to the surface depends in part on the water temperature. The warmer the water, the more likely a body will surface. Temperatures in the deeper portions of the search area are in the mid-50s, officials said.

Authorities are also considering the possibility that Bradford’s body may be snagged on one of the many trees and brush piles beneath the surface.

The water current is not believed to be a factor. The search area is in a relatively tranquil cove of the lake.

"Our experience is unless it’s in a main channel, the current is not going to move someone very far," Lt. Joe Carter said.

Carter said divers have "thoroughly" searched an area where cadaver dogs aboard a boat detected a scent. They have been using the "compass run" technique, in which one diver operates a compass to keep the search on a straight heading and the other diver uses his arms to probe around him. Searches along the lake bottom average about 30 minutes per dive.

Authorities say the operation is filled with risks; one diver had his radio communication line ripped from his gear when it snagged on a branch. Another diver’s primary air hose burst while he was above the water — an equipment failure that would have created a critical risk underwater, Tempel said.

Said Sargent, "It’s very, very dangerous work. But these guys know what they’re doing."

Gaston-Johnson, Bradford’s friend, said those who know him have sent along their thanks to the dive team.

"I know they’re doing their best and everyone appreciates them," she said. "Everyone’s waiting for some kind of closure."

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