Editor’s note: This story was originally published May 1. It has been updated in light of recent news events.
TORONTO – The tragic stories emerging from South Korea as authorities recover the bodies of 40 passengers still missing from a sunken ferry provide a brief glimpse into the jobs of search and rescue divers.
On Tuesday, a civilian diver involved in the searches died after becoming unconscious, government task force spokesman Ko Myung-seok said in a statement.
He is the first fatality among divers mobilized following the ferry’s sinking, according to the coast guard.
Reports of divers making their way through a maze of dark cabins, stairwells and storage rooms while they fight strong currents swirling around the ferry give the public a grim look at the tragedy that occurred on April 16 and the divers that must comb the remains.
Last month, a boy and girl were said to be found drowned with their life jackets tied together — presumably so they wouldn’t be separated.
“I started to cry thinking that they didn’t want to leave each other,” the diver who found the remains reportedly told a local newspaper.
Over 260 bodies have been recovered so far. Details of how bodies have been recovered are undeniably difficult for relatives and friends who lost loved ones, but experts say the potential mental health impact of those involved in the bleak task of recovering the bodies can often be overlooked.
“Even the ‘toughest rescuers’ can be overwhelmed at times by mass casualty incidents when there is so much needless loss, death, destruction and trauma,” said Dr. Robert Scott, a clinical psychologist and certified trauma specialist. “Especially if the population is unique — as in the case of South Korea where many of the victims are school-age children and adolescents.”
He said that loss, death and harm to children and young people are especially difficult for first responders to deal with.
“It is the one group of victims that is particularly hard for rescuers,” he said. “It has to do with their [the children's] vulnerability, innocence and the fact that often first responders may identify with their own children and lose objectivity when rescuing or recovering deceased bodies of children.”
Dr. Timmy Carey, an occupational health professional with over 23 years of missing person recovery experience in Ireland, has been involved in the recovery of close to 50 missing persons.
Carey said that rescue or recovery missions often take place in dark water, an environment with little or no ambient light.
“The above stressors all occur in a pressurized underwater environment where the diver is deprived of a number of senses and communication is much more difficult than on the surface,” he said.
“The condition of the body being recovered by the diver may also in itself be a psychological stressor, as quite often it may be in an advanced state of decay.”
Carey said it is important for search and recover divers to not only obtain the proper training, but to receive support from peers and those on their search unit.
‘PTSD can be a consequence of the job’
Scott said that mental health illnesses among first responders, like divers, are likely more common than what is being reported and that “the reason that there is not as much news about it is we tend to focus more on the heroism of the events and who was saved and how.”
“We often forget to talk about the emotional cost to those who do these jobs day in and day out,” he said.
“The people that do the jobs don’t like to talk about the emotional issues either. They often don’t want to focus on that side of it and that is why we need more understanding and public information to normalize the ideas of critical incident stress, compassion fatigue, and traumatic over-exposure.”
Scott said that when individuals are not exposed to good training programs or do not have on-going support programs in place, they may be unaware of the normal reactions to critical incident stress and how to cope and recover quickly.
“In these cases they often develop more serious chronic conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” he said.
“With comprehensive stress management education and training programs, PTSD can be reduced in this profession. But sometimes even with outstanding programs and support — sometimes an incident is so overwhelming and difficult that PTSD can be a consequence of the job.”
The Canadian Mental Health Association says that people with jobs or occupations that put them in dangerous situations, including search and rescue divers, have higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than other professions.
‘We focus on what it means to the family’
Gene Ralston has been conducting search and recovery missions with his wife Sandy for over 30 years. “It’s important for us to not dwell on the conditions of the remains,” Gene said in an interview with Global News.
He said there is a tragic story behind every search.
“And that is bothersome. But we deal with that by trying to understand the family’s loss. We focus on what it means to the family… to have help in finding and recovering their loved one.”
Fourteen years ago, the Ralstons, who live in Idaho, equipped their boat–Kathy G–with side scan sonar system equipment. The technology is similar to that used in medical ultrasounds and is said to dramatically increase resolution of targets such as drowning victims.
“The benefits of using side scan sonar to search for drowning victims and other objects underwater, include being able to search a large area quickly and safely,” said Gene. “Divers are not placed at risk during the search operation and are only deployed for the recovery once the object is found. The side scan sonar images are also useful to evaluate any hazards to divers before they enter the water.”
The duo are mostly retired from their business as environmental consultants specializing in water issues and say they don’t have children and are mostly unencumbered when it comes to travel. The couple travels with their boat and custom motor home and have assisted in several high-profile searches, including the tragic case of Laci Peterson.
To date, Gene said he and his wife recovered 91 bodies in total, including 12 in Canada. The couple was also able to locate the remains of a man who had been missing 29 years.
“We also work closely with the family and have compassion for their loss,” he said. “One of the most difficult things we have to do is end a search without having found the person.
While Gene said that he and his wife do not have any specific coping mechanisms to deal with the potential stressors of the job, they maintain contact with families of those whose remains they recovered to keep updated on their lives.
Gene said it is messages like the following that allow him and his wife to be able to cope with the work that they do:
“…I am eternally grateful to the Ralstons’ for their tenacity and commitment to help bring closure to families that endure such a tragic loss,” read the message written by a client who lost the “love of her life” after her husband accidentally fell off his boat last year.
Gene said he and his wife found the victim in 235 feet of water after searching for seven days.
“Losing someone you love so dearly, clearly changes your perspective on life, it changes you, you are never the same,” the post continues.
“But we grow, and blossom, and must forge ahead. We must rely on our spirits to guide us, and feel blessed that we have a special angel to watch over us, as we continue our journey. I want to thank everyone that has consoled me that has been there for me, and helped me heal. Grief is one of the most painful feelings I have ever felt, both physically and emotionally. From the bottom of my heart, I am sending love and light to all of you for being there.”
- with files from The Associated Press
© Shaw Media, 2014