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SEARCHING FOR WHAT LIES BELOW: Members bring up bodies, criminal evidence                               

The reddish whiskers peeking out from under Jason Smith's diving goggles offer the only clues to his identity as he prepares to jump into the Detroit River.

The 35-year-old engineer from Dundee is encased in a diving suit that keeps him dry underwater.

"I weigh 120 pounds and when I technical dive, my body weight doubles," said Smith, one of 20 members of the Midwest Technical Recovery Team, an all-volunteer group of deep diving experts from southeast Michigan..

Smith's gear carries a weighty purpose as well. It allows him to go where others can't: to depths of more than 200 feet in search of drowning victims, criminal evidence or other items out of reach of most divers, who typically don't go below 130 feet.

Deeper dives require special equipment and training as well as an elaborate cocktail of nitrogen, oxygen and helium to breathe. Most law enforcement dive teams don't have the capability to do this because it is expensive and they would rarely use it.

That's when they call for the recovery team.

"We try not to step on anyone's toes," said team founder Bill Robinette, a retired Detroit Police diver. "If they need us, they call us."

The team recently worked with police dive teams in the Detroit River to search for simulated explosives and other items.

Most of the team's members are retired police and firefighters, but there are other diving enthusiasts, too. Among them: a lawyer, engineer, steel salesman and machinist.

Team members train monthly and receive no pay. They must provide their own equipment and their own gas money. Some team members have $10,000 in diving equipment.

Team members are required to carry insurance issued through the Divers Alert Network, a safety organization. Policies are about $70 per year, per diver, Robinette said, and cover medical costs for diving injuries.

Additionally, some life insurance policies won't cover diving deaths, so divers sometimes must carry additional insurance.

Robinette said he has never had a team member injured. He credits the extensive training and certification process divers go through.

A lawyer on the team, Mark Kistner, 51, of Metamora, is registering the team as a nonprofit agency so that it can accept tax-deductible donations to help buy equipment and pay for training. He started diving in 1995 and became an instructor.

"I enjoy diving a lot," Kistner said. "I like the peace and quiet and I enjoy the discovery."

Other team members agree. There's no financial incentive to do it, they say, but it does let them share their expertise for a good purpose.

"It's more of a passion than anything else," said Lisa Rittinger, 40, of Lennox Township, who was laid off from her job at a mold-making plant. "We believe in helping people in their time of need."

Not everyone on the team is a diver. Ted Smith retired from his job in heating and cooling and is a part-time court officer in Lenawee County.

"I joined the team as surface support because I like to spend time with my children," said Smith, whose son, Jason, and daughter-in-law, Sue, dive on the team. He works aboard boats when divers are in the water, sending and receiving signals to the divers through a rope that connects them to the boat.

One tug means the diver is OK. Two tugs means the diver needs more line. A third means an object has been found and the location should be logged on the boat's global positioning system.

Robinette founded the team after retiring from the Detroit Police Department. With the department's dive team, he recovered more than 200 bodies and other items.

He has a personal interest in his work: His father drowned during a fishing trip in Arkansas in the mid 1970s. The police searched, but could not find him.

Robinette and his brother drove there and searched themselves. They didn't find him, but the body surfaced later and was recovered. Robinette learned how vulnerable people feel when they can't find their loved ones.

"It's something that people can't do for themselves," said team member Stephen Render, a 37-year-old machinist from Commerce Township. "I can't imagine being in their shoes, and I hope I never have to be."

Earlier this year, the team recovered the bodies of two Dayton, Ohio, divers whose equipment apparently malfunctioned in the cold waters of a northwest Ohio quarry.

When the team is searching for a drowning victim, they typically descend in pairs to the bottom and begin a pattern search. At deep depths, they can only stay on the bottom for about 20 minutes, before they must begin a 40-minute ascent.

Finding a body requires all the documentary work, plus harnessing it to return it to the surface and keeping your emotions in check.

"You're focused on doing what you have to do, but when you lie down to sleep at night, you see them still," said Victor Johnson, 43, of New Baltimore, who sells steel for a living. "It gives diving another purpose."

Contact JOHN WISELY at 248-351-3696 or jwisely@freepress.com.