By Karen Zautyk
Recently, on one of the most brutally hot mornings of the summer, two guys from Lyndhurst decided to take a plunge in the Passaic River. T
his was not as foolhardy as it sounds, even though they were swimming around in the murk of River Mile 10.9, the most polluted portion of the infamoulsy polluted Lower Passaic.
Lt. Nicholas Haggerty and Lt. Mike Cerbo are certified divers and members of the Lyndhurst Fire Department Dive Team, and they were taking part in a demonstration of newly acquired “dry suits,” which will permit the team to perform its underwater duties without fear of contamination. Oh, the suits themselves can get contaminated–on the outside — but they are easily decontaminated with water and dish soap, the mixture hosed and scrubbed over the suits as soon as the men get back on shore.
More importantly, the new, high-tech suits protect the bodies within, a huge boon to divers who had previously made do with standard recreational diving gear.
Six of the special dry suits, costing a total of $16,185, were donated to the local department by the Lower Passaic Cooperating Parties Group (CPG), an organization comprising 70 companies that the Environmental Protection Agency considers responsible for the river contamination.
Working together, the EPA and the CPG have been investigating pollution along the 17 miles of the Lower Passaic, from the Dundee Dam in Garfield to Newark Bay.
River Mile 10.9, off the shores of Lyndhurst, has been called the most polluted stretch, patricularly within the mudflats, the parts of the riverbed exposed at low tide. Work on dredging, and eventually capping, the sediments is set to begin in early August. (See story p. 4)
But meanwhile, as they have for the last 20 years, the LFD Dive Team goes about its courageous business, braving a river that is not only contaminated but notorious for its dangerous currents. Not to mention all the junk that has accumulated in the urban waterway over the decades.
When the Lyndhurst divers, who provide search-rescue-recovery assistance to communities up and down river and also along the Hackensack, enter the water, they never know what they might encounter: an old sunken boat, a car, a shopping cart, storm-downed trees.
To make things even more difficult, underwater flashlights or searchlights are useless, team member and former Lyndhurst Fire Chief Andrew Marmorato told us. All the light does is reflect off the murk. “The search is not visual,” Marmorato said. “They do everything by feel.” (Try to imagine that for a moment–making your way in darkness, deep underwater, in a swift tide. And while wearing about 50 lbs. of gear, including the 20-lb suit and weights around your ankles.)
For security, the divers are each tethered to a “tender,” a fellow team member on shore or in a boat, with a “com line.” Short for “communications line.” We thought these were merely ropes, but Marmorato explained that, through them, the men underwater can literally talk to those above. If the “mic” in the diving mask stops functioning, communication can continue with a series of tugs on the line.
There are 19 members of the LFD Dive Team: 10 divers and nine “tenders,” all of whom undergo rigorous training.
The team captain, Lt. Haggerty, has been a member for eight years, but has been SCUBA diving for 13, having started when he was in the 7th grade. Marmorato has been an LFD member for 20 years and a diver for 18. (We would have liked to have chatted with Lt. Cerbo, too, but before we could, he was already swimming with the fishes.)
The other team members are equally aquatically inclined, and they all train at least once a month. “We also use the town pool to keep our skills up,” Haggerty said.
Search/rescue/recovery calls are answered year round (add ice to the hazards divers might encounter). A very recent one was a request to aid Nutley police and firefighters in the rescue of a kayaker whose craft was flipped over by the current near the Lyndhurst bridge. Mission accomplished.
The divers save lives, human and otherwise (dogs have been rescued after taking a plunge). They also have the sadder task of recovering bodies of drowning victims. And they’re ready to respond whenever and wherever, even at risk to their own lives.
All this, you might note, for no pay.
Lyndhurst’s is an all-volunteer Fire Department.