Cruising along the windswept water of Lake Tenkiller on a warm early May morning, Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper Kevin Goldsby gazes up and points to a high-hanging cliff over the water.
“I remember when a huge chunk of ice fell off that cliff and almost crushed us in the water,” Goldsby yelled over the sound of the boat’s motor.
Goldsby, a 14-year member of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol dive team, has dived in almost every body of water in the state. He has recovered more than 100 cars, half as many boats and about 25 bodies during his tenure.
On a particular dive about 10 years ago, Goldsby and Dennis Splawn, another 14-year member, were searching for a vehicle investigators thought may have driven off an ice covered cliff.
“It was January or February, in about 97 feet of water,” Goldsby said later. “We finished the search, come up and we hear this large boom and a crack. The OSBI agents at the top of the cliff are yelling and screaming, and we see this giant sheet of ice about the size of a car falling. ”
Goldsby and Splawn dove back under water and the ice sheet crashed on top of the boat and broke. The ice broke into hundreds of pieces.
“It’s amazing nobody got hurt,” Goldsby said.
Smiling, he turns to his team members and begins to talk about the current mission.
There is a fishing boat that sunk in about 15 feet of water. The dive team plans to lift the boat and turn it over to the lake patrol.
Not far away, lake troopers have found a car in about 30 feet of water using sonar. Divers will search the car for identifying traits, like a license place or serial number, to determine how it ended up in the water and who it belonged to.
“There’s always a possibility of finding bodies when we search a car,” dive team commander Lt. Jeff James said.
In the early 2000s, the patrol dive team was reassembled after being decommissioned decades earlier.
Several troopers with diving experience decided there was a need for a group that specialized in recovering drowning victims, cars, boats, and evidence from Oklahoma’s lakes and rivers.
The handful of troopers on the team had mostly only dived for fun and had never done it in an official capacity. They used their personal equipment along with a few relics found tucked away in storage rooms.
“Some of the stuff we had looked like it had been used by Jacques Cousteau,” Goldsby said.
But despite the lack of experience and adequate equipment, the team quickly got its feet wet.
When a section of the Interstate 40 bridge crossing the Arkansas River near Webbers Falls collapsed in 2002, the recently formed dive team was called to recover bodies and cars from the muddy waters.
“I walked out to the end of the bridge, and I was just amazed,” Goldsby said. “I had never seen anything like that.”
The bridge collapsed after the driver of a barge blacked out and lost control of his vessel. It crashed into one of the bridge’s pillars, causing it to crumble.
The team, along with many other state and national agencies, camped on the banks of the river and slowly worked to sort through the wreckage.
Four current members of the team, Goldsby, Splawn, Brandon Schneider and team Capt. Jeremy Allread, worked the bridge collapse and helped to bring the victims’ bodies back to their families.
Goldsby said though that by hopefully bringing a family closure is a rewarding experience, he tries not to dwell on those memories.
“It’s not something you want to think about a whole lot because it can really bother you after a while,” Goldsby said.
Fourteen people died and 11 were injured in the tragedy, but the dive team became stronger through the experience, Goldsby said. It also displayed that the dive team could be a useful asset.
“It really showed that there was a need for us, and in turn that helped us get more funding and better equipment,” Schneider said.
The team now has 16 members, 10 of which are certified emergency response divers, and one is a medic. The other five are certified scuba divers and will be able to get emergency response diver certification through the training with the team.
The members are all troopers with regular highway duties, and they receive no extra compensation for their participation. They are stationed across from the state, and are always on call whenever something, or someone, needs to be recovered.
As the small fishing boat rises to the surface, the water bubbles and froths, and two massive airbags broach the surface.
Goldsby and fellow diver Charles “Papa” Criddle worked for about 15 minutes to find the boat, identify attachment points and clip-on deflated airbags to the boat. Those bags were then inflated from an air tank and brought the boat to the surface.
The eight men on the dive boat go through the process of donning equipment and getting the divers in the water with few commands being given. Everyone has a job.
The team has raised a boat from the bottom of the lake in less time than it takes for a mechanic to change the oil in a car.
It’s a complicated process, no doubt, but it’s made to look as easy as reeling in a large fish.
After the boat has been hauled in and placed on a wrecker, they move on to the submerged car about a mile away.
This time in the water, it will be the younger troopers, Tanner Beckner and Darrell Splawn (no relation to Dennis).
Splawn has only been on the team for three years, but he is no stranger to recovering cars.
In September of 2013, Splawn and Allread dove down into Foss Lake near Elk City to pull out two cars that were found at the edge of a boat ramp.
They planned to pull out the two cars so the boat ramp could be extended into the water, but first they had to see if anything, or anyone, was in them.
Diving down, Splawn and Allread felt around the cars and guessed at what kind of cars they were. Splawn felt a shoe inside of one of the cars, but didn’t think much of it.
“When we brought that car up, there was a femur lying right next to that shoe,” Splawn said.
There ended up being three bodies in that car, which authorities believe may be three adults reported missing out of Canute in 1969.
When it came time to pull the other car out, a 1969 Camaro, part of it broke up, and its contents spilled out into the lake. The troopers then learned there were three more bodies that had been sitting in the lake. Investigators believe those bodies could be those of three teens reported missing from Sayre in 1970.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Splawn said. “I still don’t to this day.”
Suiting up to dive down into the deep, cold lake, Splawn is preparing mentally for the possibility that he might be seeing another body in the water below his feet.
As the divers descend and try to locate the car, they report back to James on the boat.
The feeling on the boat is slightly tense, not knowing exactly what to expect.
“Everyone who dives in black water says you’ll meet the boogie man at some point,” Splawn said.
“Before Foss Lake, I didn’t think that kind of thing could happen,” Splawn said.
When the divers find it, they begin to feel around, determine what kind of car it is. It’s old, they say, and has probably been in the water a long time.
There’s no license plate, no identifying marks, and nothing hidden inside. They decide it’s too brittle and would likely fall apart on its way up. It will stay at the bottom of the lake.
Splawn and Beckner return to the surface, strip off their gear and the team heads back to shore to debrief and have a meal.
Despite the sometimes grisly nature of their work, there is an unmistakable sense of camaraderie and enjoyment among the members as they sit at wooden picnic tables and chat about all the times they’ve had in and out of the water.
Sure, it’s not always a pleasant job to have, James said, but they all knew they were going to have to deal with death in their jobs as troopers.
“At least with this, we can get some good from it, get some closure for families,” James said.
As they pack and ready for their departure, “Papa” Criddle chimed in.
“Any day spent on the water and off the highway is a good day,” he said.