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.
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