Wheeling Water Rescue Teams Busier Than Ever

Photos by Heather Ziegler Members of the Wheeling Area Underwater Special Tactics Team and swift water rescue team members train at Heritage Port throughout the summer. Indoor training is often held at local swimming pools including at The Linsly School.

WHEELING — Thousands of visitors walk the Ohio River shoreline along Wheeling’s Heritage Port each year. Maybe they stop on the dock to watch the pleasure boats or barges travel the river.

Others will dock boats along the waterfront to enjoy the festivals, concerts and other events that draw them to the city. However, before the festival season kicks into high gear each year, there is something going on under the water to ensure the safety of visitors.

Members of the local fire and law enforcement departments suit up in scuba gear at various times of the year, slip into the river and take a look at what’s going on under the water.

Wheeling Fire Department Capt. Eric Cianelli heads up the effort with the Wheeling Area Underwater Special Tactics Team. The team has about 26 members from the city fire and police departments and Ohio County Sheriff’s Office. Also, a member of the Benwood Volunteer Fire Department takes part. In addition, the fire department maintains a swift water rescue team.

Grant funding has enabled the divers to add more dives to their training as well as buy cameras, helmets, a metal detector, a dive trailer and other gear. New grants are always being sought to keep the equipment up to date.

“We have a wish list of next-generation equipment — underwater robot, cameras and equipment for divers,” Cianelli said.

Cianelli and other divers can be seen training along Heritage Port throughout the summer. Early summer dives are done to check out what’s lurking beneath the water to prevent boating accidents or other problems on the water before the festival season kicks into high gear at the port.

The team also goes into area creeks for training and for search and rescue operations. Sometimes they assist police in searching for evidence in the water.

“We look for obstructions by Heritage Port, do search patterns and evidence searches with the police. We perform rescues and recoveries,” Cianelli said.

Basic skills training and disentanglement drills are performed at The Linsly School’s indoor pool.

To date, divers have located numerous wheelchairs, power scooters, bicycles, shopping carts and traffic cones in the river. He said there are currently four cars in the water near the Wheeling Island ramp.

“Visibility is about 1 foot in front of you. The funniest part is still when the fish — bass, catfish and carp — come up to you and you can feed them hot dogs by hand,” Cianelli said.

The training can be fun, but Cianelli and fellow fire department diver Rick Brown know the importance of having the dive team in an area where water is so much a part of the landscape and recreational pursuits.

“More people are using the creeks for kayaking. We’ve had seven rescues on Wheeling Creek alone this year,” Brown, a fire engineer, said. “When we’re diving, it’s in about complete darkness. It’s not easy but we want to give families closure when we are doing a recovery.”

Their training has been vital in recent water events, including several incidents that have ended tragically.

The members involved in the dive team searched long hours to locate Jerry Dowd Jr. of Wheeling after an apparent boating accident on the river early July 5.

His body was located by the divers using specialized underwater cameras several days later near where the accident occurred.

A flash flood on Peters Run in Ohio County claimed the lives of 24-year-old Michael Grow and 18-year-old Page Gellner just a few weeks later in July. It took several days before volunteers spotted Gellner’s body near the mouth of Wheeling Creek and the Ohio River. Grow had been pulled out of the creek, but was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

During the creek flooding, members of the Rapid Response Search and Rescue team from Berlin, Ohio, helped with the search that included the use of cadaver dogs. This is an Amish Mennonite Christian Aid Ministries operation, Cianelli said.

Also, the Tyler County Search and Rescue Team operates with cadaver dogs which can be essential in locating victims. Other vital tools include side scan sonar equipment that is placed in the water and transmits its data back to a computer in the dive trailer.

Wheeling Fire Chief Larry Helms has seen the need for added water rescue and recovery training as divers and swift water rescue teams are called on more often.

“We are living by so much water, which makes these teams very important to our community,” Helms said.

Helms urged the public to heed weather warnings when storms approach and to stay out of the creeks and streams during rain events.