Carroll County Sheriff Bob Grudek said the weeklong search for a missing spear fisherman has been called off because of dangerous conditions underwater.
Grudek said he has been in contact Michael Burton's family to tell them of the decision. Burton, of Omaha, Neb., disappeared while spear fishing in a Beaver Lake with a friend on July 27, and search teams have been looking for him since.
The cove Burton, 28, went missing in is heavily covered in underwater trees, bushes and other debris, including discarded fishing line, hooks and other material. Search divers have had to contend with the obstacles as well as poor visibility in the 60-foot deep cove.
Dive team Captain Keith Downs says they've experienced numerous obstacles in the search for Burton's body.
“The visibility is very poor, probably less than two feet visibility down on the bottom, a lot of trees, a lot of limbs a lot of different hazards and obstacles like that that would be easy to get entangled in," Downs said.
Downs says he is hopeful they will find the body and will continue to assist in the search for as long as they're needed.
Burton disappeared while spear fishing with a friend in a cove off Starkey Island in Beaver Lake at approximately 11 a.m. Saturday morning (July 27). Search and rescue divers from several counties are now involved in the search.
Officials say they are confident Burton’s body is on the bottom of the lake and believe he either got caught up in some fishing line or other debris that prevented him from surfacing or he had what divers call a “shallow-water blackout.”
The cadaver dogs were brought from Little Rock, as well.
“We decided to bring in cadaver dogs to actually hit on some spots,” said Rick Downum, Benton County Dive Team Training Officer.
Grudek said Burton and a dive buddy were spear fishing without air tanks — free diving — when the friend told officials that he was having pain from a blockage in his ear. He swam back to the pair’s boat to retrieve some medication while Burton did a solo dive, the friend said.
When the friend returned to the water, he saw Burton’s float device that is attached to his spear gun on the surface of the water and gave it a tug to alert Burton he had returned. When the line went slack, the friend realized Burton was in trouble since he was not holding on to his spear gun.
Grudek said Burton was wearing a dive suit with heavy gloves, a swim mask and a 14-pound belt, which he said has complicated finding his body. The cove the men were free diving in measures about 600 feet across at the mouth and is approximately 800 feet in depth, with water as deep as 60 feet, Grudek said.
The area is popular with fishermen because of numerous underwater trees, heavy brush and other debris. Grudek and Alan Bland of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers compared the cove to a thick underground forest.
“We almost have to stumble upon him,” Grudek said. “We feel he is at the bottom. There are trotlines and anchor lines and treble hooks. It’s a forest underwater. It’s a very dangerous site.”
Grudek said he has been in contact with Burton’s family with regular updates. If the body is not located Sunday, Grudek said searchers will bring in cadaver dogs Monday morning to see if they can detect any gas that may have been released from Burton’s body.
The fact that Burton was wearing a dive suit combined with the cold temperature of the water will limit the effectiveness of the cadaver dogs, Grudek said. It’s worth the attempt to try to narrow down the scope of the search in the cove.
Search leaders met early Sunday to mark off the cove in grids to better organize the undertaking of the search. The vast forest under the water forces divers to go painstakingly slow with a dive buddy with very low visibility deeper than 40-50 feet.
The sonar equipment regularly used in water searches has been ineffective because of the underwater objects.
“You have to be an expert to decipher a body from a tree limb,” Grudek said.
Grudek said there were now as many as 20 divers on the scene but only 6-8 were in the water at any one time. They spent most of Sunday morning and early afternoon searching in water as deep as 50 feet but planned to move to deeper water later in the day.
Grudek said officials are confident Burton’s body is on the bottom of the lake and theorized he either got caught up in some fishing line or other debris that prevented him from surfacing or he had what divers call a shallow-water blackout.
Authorities have stretched evidence tape across the mouth of the cove to ward off recreational fishermen while the search is going on.
Saturday’s search was called off in the evening by members of the Benton and Carroll counties’ dive teams and the Mennonite Disaster Service Team. Downun of the Benton County dive team said the abundance of trees limited the divers’ ability to search efficiently.
“We couldn’t even run patterns, we had to buddy dive so that we could get around the trees,” Downum said.
Bland said the free divers generally go from 15-60 feet underwater and it is too early to determine what could have caused the man to not resurface.
“There’s 100 different things that could have gone wrong,” Bland said.