WESTPORT — Pitch black, the depths of Lake Champlain challenge search-and-rescue divers.
A recreational jump off the cliffs at Champlain Palisades turned tragic last weekend, mobilizing divers from Port Henry Volunteer Fire Department and State Police to an underwater search effort for Michael Mindell that spanned more than two days.
The dispatch call to Port Henry’s dive team came in at 5:33 p.m. last Saturday.
Police Chief Jim Hughes was at a wedding reception when someone tapped him on the shoulder, describing briefly what happened.
Mindell, 39, had jumped from a 150-foot cliff into the water and had not resurfaced.
The Port Henry Fire Department mobilized. Hughes, Fire Capt. Robert DeFelice and Third Assistant Chief Ron Van Slooten got their gear and loaded the rescue boat.
Two of the company’s firefighters, Lt. Phil Smith and William Blood, manned the vessel; both are trained resuscitation personnel, Hughes said.
Another 10 firefighters stood by at the docks as they left port. The rescue boat was underway within 20 minutes.
The water was choppy that afternoon, pushing through 1-foot swells. It took about 20 minutes to reach the Palisades Cliffs, north of Westport Marina.
Westport Hose Company firefighters had set a lake-surface perimeter around the area where the man had jumped in, Hughes said.
And crews in a boat from the U.S. Coast Guard arrived from Burlington to oversee the rescue effort.
Motorboat traffic through the Narrows remained busy, with fast, high-performance boats pushing wide wakes against the rescue area.
The Narrows marks the region where the thin lower stretch of Lake Champlain opens into the broad lake, flowing north.
There is an underwater corridor there, dropping 400 feet deep in the middle.
Initial dives focused on the wall, Hughes said of their strategy, working in shifts, rotating, with two divers below and one at the water’s surface at all times.
The cliffs, which drop another 70 feet below the surface, are lined with rock shelves, he said of the terrain beneath the lake.
“We focused on the area where he fell, about 10 feet from the rock face. The whole wall is covered with these razor-sharp zebra mussels; they would cut you to ribbons if you brushed against them.”
The wake from the passing boats jogged divers toward the rocks.
But that motion also helped identify the search area and where a person might drift, unconscious, underwater.
Depth gauges indicate the lake bed beneath the cliffs shifts from 60 to 70 feet before bending in a unique lake-bottom elbow, sloped west to east, dropping to depths of 165 feet.
A flat shelf extends at 165 feet for about 50 yards before dropping again to 225 feet.
It gets colder the farther you go down, Hughes said, and visibility was, at best, not even 3 feet. The cliffs cast a shadow that lengthened as the sun went down.
Underwater crevasses striate the lake bed at the base of cliffs, Hughes said.
“We searched the immediate area where it was reported (by friends on the boat) that he went in; then we continued to search along the rock face in a grid motion, east to west.”
They ventured into deeper water, searching across the underwater shelves.
The water surface temperature was 71 degrees. By 125 feet below, it was 51 degrees, Hughes said.
After two and a half hours in the water, daylight began to fade, and the fire company’s dive team deployed an underwater camera until about 9:30 p.m., when the search was called off with a plan to begin again early on Sunday.
“We were feeling the effects of hypothermia,” Hughes said.
“Our last effort was to use the underwater camera. We communicated this to the Coast Guard.”
Hughes said the boat ride back to Port Henry was very quiet.
Ten Fire Department members were still waiting on standby at the dock to help unload the boat.
Port Henry was not called back to assist on Sunday, Hughes said. At that point, State Police took over in search and recovery missions.
Bureau of Criminal Investigation Lt. John Coryea said State Police divers from Troop B; Troop G, near Albany; and Troop D, Watertown; took part.
They used sonar and a specially built Remotely Operated Vehicle, Coryea told the Press-Republican.
“It is a miniature underwater submarine with cameras on it, used to explore the depths below the boat. They used a grid from the water surface and dove down from there.”
The search continued Sunday and through most of Monday.
Mindell was recovered at 6:15 p.m. Monday from water 156 feet deep.
“He was found right about where he had jumped in,” the BCI lieutenant said. “When they found the victim, they sent divers down and manually recovered the body.”
Before descending, though, State Police procedure requires aviation support backup.
“It is a safety measure, in case any diver has to come up rapidly, thus requiring immediate transport to a decompression chamber,” Coryea said.
Having a helicopter ready to go is protocol any time police divers have to go beyond 80-to-100-foot depths, Coryea explained.
“The divers told me it is pretty difficult to breathe down there,” he said.
“It was near blackout conditions.”
The recovery brought a sad end to the divers’ efforts.
An autopsy Tuesday found Mindell died of multiple internal injuries sustained in the jump. Mindell, born in Burlington, grew up in Shelburne, Vt., the son of Dr. Howard and Maureen Mindell. He leaves a son, Lucas, who is 14.
According to an obituary published in the Burlington Free Press, Mindell was an adventure enthusiast and loved to mountain bike, hike, run, race and snowboard. He also had a residence in Florida.
‘JUST NOT SAFE’
Cliff diving from the Champlain Palisades is not safe, Coryea said.
“It’s extremely unsafe. I would hope that people can see when fun goes to the extent that it puts life at risk, it’s not fun anymore.
“There is risk in slipping on cliffs and being injured before hitting the water. And another risk people often forget is what lies beneath the water in Lake Champlain.
“You don’t know what’s under there — you can only see a few feet below the surface, at best.”
“It’s terribly unsafe,” the police lieutenant said of cliff diving.
Hughes echoed the warning, urging caution and boater swimming safety.
“It’s just not safe to jump there.”
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