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All-volunteer Garden State underwater recovery team stands ready


In his 20 years as a member of the all-volunteer Garden State Underwater Recovery Unit (GSURU), Capt. Frank Nester has never found a drowning victim who was wearing a life jacket.

“The allure of the water is large, but the danger of drowning is underplayed,” Nester said recently, as his team geared up for warmer weather and the start of swimming and boating season. “We don’t teach our kids to respect the water as we should.”

Since 1960, the all-volunteer water rescue and dive recovery team has responded to hundreds of water-related emergencies, rescued trapped flood victims from homes and cars, recovered drowning victims, assisted law enforcement agencies with underwater evidence searches, and provided water safety assistance at numerous community events.

Team members teach water and ice rescue and boating classes to the general public and other public safety agencies, and offer instruction on water safety to local schools.

Based in Hunterdon County, N.J., the GSURU responded to nearly a dozen calls in 2018, six of which were searches for bodies, Nester said.

The group’s approximately two dozen members are responsible for obtaining their own SCUBA training and gear, and receive no compensation for their efforts. The GSURU does not bill for services and receives no government funding; it relies strictly on support from the community.

Other calls last year were for emergency standbys, such as triathlons, which sometimes attract “hobbyists” who can be underprepared for the grueling swimming leg of the race, according to Nester, a GSURU life member.

“Our dive team is in boats on the periphery, suited up,” he said, “We call it ‘Ready 20’ – ready to splash in in 20 seconds.

“Water rescues have to be made when the rescuers are already on scene,” Nester said, adding that if a victim is not found within 45 minutes, it usually becomes a recovery effort. That’s typically when the GSURU receives a call.

“We are the bench, so to speak,” Nester said. “It’s the worst day in a family’s life when their loved one goes missing, but at least there’s closure when we recover the body. There is no joy.”

According to the unit’s safety officer, Greg Mactye, a 37-year member, most of what the group does is related to recovering drowning victims.

“Early and late in the season especially, the main danger is cold water, which means hypothermia and drowning subsequent to overturned boats and falls overboard,” said Mactye, a former EMT and Water Rescue Team leader with the Clinton First Aid and Rescue Squad.

“It strikes everyone, whether you know how to swim or not,” he said, stressing that inner tubes and inflatable rafts are no substitutes for life jackets, even for strong swimmers.

Mactye’s specialties are boat handling and safety, and he holds instructor certificates in a number of water-rescue disciplines.

Affectionately known as the “curmudgeon in residence,” he was at one time the youngest federally certified boating safety instructor in the Somerville, N.J., branch of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary.

Much has changed in terms of recovery methods since the GSURU began nearly 60 years ago.

Training for the GSURU takes three to six months and not everyone needs to be a diver, Nester said. There is always room for boat operators, spotters, line tenders (of the search lines tethered to the divers), EMTs and firefighters, and even individuals to assist with paperwork, fundraising and publicity.

Most GSURU members have been affiliated with the group for many years, with little turnover in membership.

“It takes a unique personality to do what we do,” Nester said. “It’s not for everybody.”

Some people are surprised the group includes approximately a half-dozen women.

One of those women is Sunny Longordo, the unit’s first female captain and its president, who helped institute the policy of assigning a specific GSURU member to act as a designated family liaison when a victim’s relatives are on the scene of an extended search.

“Often this is discussed and encouraged in water-rescue and underwater recovery seminars, but few teams actually do it,” Longordo said.

Assigning a specific GSURU team member to communicate with a single family representative helps create a bond between the two groups, results in better communication regarding what to expect during the search, and often leads to lasting friendships and connections, Longordo said.

The GSURU is a member of the 90-year-old nonprofit New Jersey State First Aid Council, now the EMS Council of New Jersey.

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