Robert Gibbs is never surprised at what he finds when he dives into the Savannah River.
“I’ve found everything from a 2007 Expedition to coins out there,” he said.
Treasure hunting in local waters is one of the perks of being a volunteer member of the Richmond County Dive Team.
As a volunteer, Gibbs supplies his own equipment – which can cost several thousand dollars – and provides his services free of charge when the county calls.
Those calls vary from weapons and vehicle recovery to body recovery.
“Weapons searches are fun,” said Gibbs, who began diving in the 1980s and currently serves as dive chief. “It’s like a big Easter egg hunt.”
Once a year, the Columbia County Dive team trains by tossing a toy gun in the water at Thurmond Lake and trying to find it.
“We’ve been pretty lucky so far,” said Chester Plecha, a member of the Columbia County Dive Team. “We still have the same gun.”
In September, the Richmond County team helped pull a tractor-trailer out of the Augusta Canal after the driver struck an Interstate 20 guardrail and plunged into the water.
Frequently the divers get freelance calls from other state agencies and citizens to retrieve items dropped into water. Sometimes the requests are for cell phones and keys.
“We pass on that,” said Steve Arnold, supervisor of the Richmond County Dive Team.
The Richmond County Dive Team has 23 active members, ranging in age from the 20s to the 50s. Columbia County’s team has approximately volunteer 40 divers and support team members, who range in age up to the 70s and include schoolteachers. maintenance employees and SRS engineers.
Despite holding full-time jobs, most volunteers describe their bosses as “understanding” when the dive team calls. In summertime those dives can come more frequently as more people flock to the water.
Body recovery is one of the hardest parts of the job.
“When we search for a dead body, it’s not fun, but we’re helping a family and giving them closure,” Arnold said.
When that call comes in Columbia County, divers like to meet, clear their minds and try to do the job without dwelling on the subject, Plecha said.
The mission of the team is recovery, not rescue. Gibbs said that by the time the volunteers arrive at the scene and gear up, anyone trapped under the water would not have survived. Local firefighters are trained for water rescue.
In addition to dives for objects, teams are called for stand-by assistance in events such as boat races, ski clinics, Paddlefests and Ironman competitions.