It’s been a busy month for the dive team of the Nikiski Fire Department. In July, the dive team was called out to assist in two major operations: the recovery of a woman who drowned while swimming in the Moose River, and the retrieval of a potential murder weapon in the Kenai River. The Clarion sat down with members of the dive team on Monday to talk about those operations and to learn more about the training it takes to become a public safety diver.
Eight of Nikiski’s firefighters and engineers make up the dive team: Kassidy Stock, Matt Quiner, TJ Cox, Stephen Robertson, Tyler Smith, Angie Smith, Kole McCaughey and Bryan Crisp. Crisp is the department’s current fire chief, and said that even though the dive team has been a part of the department since the 1980s, it was only recently that the team became what it is today.
In 2015, Crisp was tasked by former Chief James Baisden to revamp the dive program from top to bottom and bring it into compliance with state regulations. Crisp and Robertson went to work acquiring all new diving equipment, and at the same time they decided to get Robertson certified as a trainer.
Robertson said that they knew they would be training a number of people once the team was back in operation, so giving him the capacity to fully train and certify all the new recruits would save the department a lot of time and money in the long run. Under Robertson’s instruction, all of the Nikiski divers are fully certified public safety divers and have each completed about 50 dives over two years of training.
Angie Smith said that she has always wanted to be a diver. Smith grew up swimming in Alaska lakes and was pushing to be on the dive team as soon as she started volunteering at the department. Smith participated in some of the preliminary training while still a volunteer, and once she got hired on full time she was able to finish her certifications.
“I still haven’t done any diving in warm water, which might ruin Alaska for me,” Smith said.
Her husband, Tyler Smith, said that he joined the team as a way to challenge himself and learn a new skill. Smith admitted that he wasn’t the best swimmer when he first started and said that he scored five out of a possible 20 points on his first swim test.
“You get three points for putting your name down,” Robertson said. Smith embraced the challenge and got his sea legs, but his teammates still like to tease him about it.
At 21 years old, TJ Cox is both the youngest member of the dive team and the youngest employee in the whole department. Cox said he found his passion for diving while snorkeling in Hawaii with his family as a kid and wanted to be able to spend extended periods of time underwater without holding his breath.
Matt Quiner, meanwhile, has been diving since before Cox was born. Quiner has been trained in open-water diving since 1990 from his time serving in the Coast Guard. Quiner did some recreational diving on his own time, but didn’t join the Nikiski dive team until 2015 when Crisp brought it back to life.
“My dad dove too and we watched a lot of Jacques Cousteau when I was a kid, so I always wanted to be a scuba diver,” Quiner said.
Kassidy Stock also knew from a young age that he wanted to be a scuba diver, but when approached to join the dive team he said he took some time to mull over the decision and make sure he was doing it for the right reasons.
“I’ve got three young daughters at home and (diving) can be a dangerous thing to do, so the competency of our instructor and knowing that I would get the proper training was a big factor in my decision,” Stock said.
The Nikiski dive team recently became the only team in the state to be certified in both public safety diving and underwater criminal investigation, or UCI. As it turns out, the UCI training could not have come at a more opportune time. It was barely a week after the team received the training that they were called out to recover the body of 18-year-old Yanting Jin, who disappeared while swimming with friends in the Moose River on July 8
Crisp said that it took the team about an hour and a half to find Jin’s body. The poor visibility in the water made it so that the divers could barely see more than 6 inches in front of them. Robertson said that time was a major factor in that operation. Even though the team knew it was unlikely that Jin was still alive when they arrived on scene, recovering her body was important in providing closure for the family.
Just a few weeks after that incident, the Nikiski divers had their UCI training put to the test once again.
After a suspect had been identified in the murder of two Kenai women on July 21, investigation led law enforcement to believe that the murder weapon had possibly been thrown into the Kenai River. On July 24, Kenai Police met with Crisp and Robertson to brief them about the investigation, and the two went to work that night determining possible locations where a gun might have drifted.
“We didn’t want to search the whole Kenai River,” Robertson said. “We want to search a specific area or at least a hot spot where we think it’s going to be.”
Crisp said that they first looked at the tide charts to determine where the waterline would have been at the time the gun was tossed into the river. They then visited the spot along the river where they thought the suspect might have thrown the gun and threw similarly weighted rocks into the water at various angles and distances to triangulate an approximate location to begin their search.
The next morning at about 6 a.m., the whole dive team went to the spot where they had determined the gun was likely to be based on their measurements. The spot was under the bridge on Bridge Access Road. Because it was in the middle of dipnetting season, other public safety agencies assisted with keeping the area clear during the investigation. After setting up a series of jackstays — rope lines connected to buoys and anchors that run along the bottom of the river — the team begin their search in pairs. After about two hours, the team’s estimates were proven right. Crisp was almost finished with one of his run throughs when he picked up something that didn’t quite feel like a rock or a dead fish.
“I had to bring it about 2 inches away from my face before I realized ‘yep, that’s a gun,’” Crisp said. After retrieving the potential murder weapon, it was placed in a Tupperware container filled with river water to prevent it from rusting and sent off to the fingerprints and ballistics lab in Anchorage for analysis.
Robertson said that a big part of underwater criminal investigation involves documenting everything and taking meticulous notes throughout the investigation. The team marked the exact location where the gun was recovered in case the scene needed to be recreated by a forensics team.
“It’s important to do everything right, because we know it’s leading to a criminal case or a potential criminal outcome,” Robertson said.
The divers conduct quarterly dives as a team to keep their skills sharp, and each member is free to use the equipment for practice on their off days.
Robertson is also in the process of becoming certified as an instructor in underwater criminal investigation so that he can train other dive teams around the state to conduct thorough investigations in all of Alaska’s waterways.