Dive team pulls SUV from river

Published 6:00 pm Monday, March 25, 2019

VALLEY — Sixteen-year-old Austin Fetner and his friends love to go fishing on the Chattahoochee River. On Saturday, they learned that it can be a very dangerous place if not careful.

At about 1 p.m., Fetner backed his 2002 Chevy Tahoe down the Shawmut boat ramp down to the water’s edge. His intent was to go forward back to the parking lot area, but when he took his foot off the brake to hit the accelerator, the SUV crept backward enough to be caught by the swiftly flowing river current.

The Tahoe was swept away by the river and quickly sank into the murky water. It was a frightful few seconds before the three friends could exit the vehicle and swim to shore. No one was injured, but the white Tahoe on the river bottom needed to be pulled to shore.

Fetner and his friends had cell phones, but because they had to swim to shore, their devices were unusable. Fortunately, some people were at the nearby picnic pavilion, and they allowed him to borrow a phone to call for help.

Fetner called his grandmother, Linda Harper, to explain what had happened. She in turn called 9-1-1. Soon, there was an East Alabama ambulance and fire trucks on the scene, along with Valley Police Department cruisers.

A flatbed recovery vehicle from Holladay Wrecker Service in Lanett was in position on the boat ramp to pull out the submerged SUV, but there was a big problem — no one could see it, and for all anyone knew it could have been swept downriver toward Langdale Dam. That’s when some modern technology came into play. Clay Tucker, who operates a drone for the Valley Police Department, reported to the scene and flew the drone over the river and quickly found the Tahoe on the river bottom about 10 feet deep and only approximately 30 yards from the boat ramp.

“The camera’s polarizing lens really helps,” he said. “It lets us see up to 20 feet underwater.”

The rescuers had the exact location for the vehicle. What was needed now was for some divers to go into the chilly water, secure the vehicle with a heavy chain and then allow the Holladay wrecker to pull it to shore. That took several hours.

A dive team from the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office reported to the scene. Certified dark water divers T.J. Wood and Jason Fuller suited up and got down to the water’s edge at the boat ramp. It took them some time to get used to the water temperature, and they swam out to the site directly above from the submerged vehicle.

“You are six feet from it,” Tucker said at one point, while directing them to the site, while watching on the monitor.

“You are straight over the hood,” he said moments later.

Fuller went down to the Tahoe and hooked the big metal chain around the SUV’s driver-side wheel. The wrecker then hauled it in, something easier said than done. It took several minutes of slow, steady pulling before the crowd on the river bank could see the car near the surface.

“There it is. I can see it,” said a child present at the scene.

The Tahoe was still several feet beneath the water when people could see its gray outline. A few seconds later, it was on the surface and back on the boat ramp.

“I didn’t get used to the water until they were hauling it in,” Fuller joked when he was back on shore.

Saturday afternoon was warm, but the river temperature was in the 50s.

Fetner and his grandmother, Harper, were among those watching from the river bank.

“It was just a freak accident,” Harper said. “The main thing is that no one got hurt. You can replace a vehicle, but not my grandson. The river took that car so fast. The water was very cold and they were in it for a minute or two, but they got out OK. That’s what I’m grateful for. I’m just glad it’s over.”

Fuller said this was the first time he has gone into the river to pull out a car.

“I’ve done it before on West Point Lake,” he said. “People will back their vehicle into the water at boat ramps. The truck and trailer will be under water but the boat will be floating.”

The sheriff’s office dive team has three members and two volunteers.

“We start out with basic open water rescues,” Fuller said. “Once you get certified in that, you can go on to being certified in dark water rescues.”