A dangerous dive for hope

Every year rescue divers across the country face challenging obstacles to recover the bodies of people's loved ones. In Missouri, rescue divers are up against strong currents, complete darkness, miscellaneous underwater wires, and tree roots that threaten to wrap around their bodies and trap them beneath the surface. Yet, the divers continue to overcome these barriers in in order to provide closure to the families and friends of those who have been lost. 

Missouri diver defies the odds through rescue efforts

By: Megan Smaltz

In the spring of 1993, houses were swept away in a flood that overcame both the Mississippi and Missouri river. What was considered a wet spring took a turn for the worst as rainfall kept coming with no clear end. The situation progressed when hundreds of levees broke causing water from the rivers to run out into streets, over bridges, and into people’s homes.


“It was full from bank to bank,” said Jeff Adams, a rescue diver and the owner of Scuba Adventure in Jefferson City.

People navigate by boat in Jefferson City during the flood of 1993. (source: Missouri State Archives)

Nine states and over 400 square miles were affected by the flood which created $15 billion in damages and killed 50 people.


With an extensive background in rescue diving, Adams was prepared to take action when disaster struck. Yet, saving lives is not typical for rescue divers. Often, rescue diving truly refers to a dangerous recovery made by SCUBA divers with a rescue certification. Nonetheless, during the Great Flood, Adams was in the right place at the right time.


It was the spring of 1993. Adams was in the car with his father when he watched as a teenage girl attempted to drive through a flooded road.


“I just said, I can’t believe she’s doing this, I can’t believe she’s doing this and all of the sudden she stopped. The car quit, and the current started carrying her away,” said Adams.


When he saw her and her car get swept away, Adams grabbed his shorty wetsuit (a short sleeve wetsuit that extends just past the knee on a person’s body) from the back of his truck and sprang into action.


“I grabbed that because if the current caught me and took me downstream, I wanted to have a little bit of protection,” said Adams.


With his wetsuit on, Adams jumped into the water and pulled the young girl out of her car through her window then he fought the current while swimming her back to shore.


After this initial rescue, he was contacted by the fire department who said they needed more help. In 24 hours, he built a barge and started rescuing people in Cedar City.


“It was a long project for me during The Flood of 1993,” said Adams, “I worked day and night and got very little sleep during that whole deal.”


He used his hand-crafted barge to deliver emergency assistance. He transported food, water, and other product as well as helped people who were trapped. Adams’ presence and training saved lives during this disaster and he was grateful to have the ability to assist.


“It was pretty neat to be able to help out like that,” said Adams. 


Except, this would not be Adams’ last rescue. In the early 2000s, Adams worked for a cruise ship in Osage County where he rescued people who went overboard. According to Adams, he would save three to four people a week but one rescue stands out in his memories.


He remembers riding on his wave runner along the side of the cruise ship when he saw floating heads bobbing in the water.


“For some reason, something said ‘go that way,’” said Adams.


He redirected his course toward the other side of the bank where he found two parents and their 11 and 13-year-old children struggling against the water’s current. The parents later recounted that they had seen their children fall off the cruise ship and jumped into the water to help. However, the current was too strong and they all were grasping for life.


“As I came in, the parents turned to me. They were focused on me and waving at me,” said Adams.


While the parents’ faced Adams eager for relief, Adams saw the 11-year-old’s head go underwater. Frantically, the preteen girl grabbed her older sister, dragging her underwater along with her. Without delay, Adams increased his speed to fifty miles an hour then dove directly into the water head first to find the girls.


“I managed to find them, grab them, and yank them to the top,” said Adams.


However, the aggressive current and heightened situation meant he had to make a quick decision on how to respond.


“I thought, they’re not going to last. I looked at the parents and said, ‘you guys go for shore, I’ve got the girls.’ I just thought somebody had to live out of this,” said Adams. 


When recalling the experience, Adams remembers thinking that if he wouldn’t have arrived when he did, then the parents would have stayed with the children and they all would have perished. Luckily, he was again in the right place at the right time with the right training.


His training has served both he, and the people of Missouri well over the course of his career. Now, he uses his training for another type of rescue: rescue diving; which often means recovering a victim’s body and bringing them home to their family.


“We just do everything we can to bring them back to where they can get closure,” said Adams.


Adams now works with the Mid-Missouri Sheriff’s dive team where he gets calls to find the remnants of vacationers and Missouri residents’ loved ones.

SCUBA Adventure closes its doors on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018. Owner Jeff Adams regularly shuts down his dive shop to recover everything from wedding rings to drowning victims. Adams says he is in charge of many of the rescue divers in the Mid-Missouri area. He trains rescue divers from all over the state on how to handle currents, navigate in zero visibility, find misplaced items, and locate lost bodies.

“We’ve been involved with pulling bodies out of water and body parts and pieces,” said Adams, “it’s just that’s the side that is difficult.”


This effort can often be frightening and challenging. It sounds like what may be many people’s nightmare taking form in real life. Yet, Adam’s does it because he believes recovery is important.


“Normally you’re in zero visibility, you can’t see anything,” said Adams, “it’s just hunt and feel; trying to figure out what you touch. It’s just one of those things that just has to be done.”


Adams describes a recovery as a slow experience, a surreal moment where you’re captured in time, visionless, surrounded by water, and possibly a human body.


“You try to figure out what you are feeling to make sure you’re feeling what you think you might be getting your hands on,” said Adams, “and then you just want to try to figure out how the person is laying, where they’re at, and get all the information you can for evidence.”


However, Adams considers this common occurrence more difficult when he discovers the age of the person he’s feeling.


“It gets even worse when kids are involved,” said Adams, “that’s the worst.”


Coping with these incidents can be challenging. Adams says that often people tell him to take a break or find time to cope but according to Adams, his training has allowed him to save people and that is what makes his efforts worthwhile.


“Whenever I just happen to be in the right spot at the right time, that’s one of those things that’s real rewarding,” said Adams, “I can deal with it, and so far, it hasn’t affected me afterward so it’s all right.”


Even on seemingly frightening dives, Adams doesn’t recall ever feeling fear. Instead of fear, he chooses to air on the side of caution so that he has no reason to be afraid.


“I go by the idea that the only thing worse than having one dead body is having two dead bodies,” said Adams.


This is a motto that he lives by. Now, Adams teaches SCUBA students in a variety of classes from open water diving to cave diving.

Sheriff Chris Heitman (right) works with a student (left) on skills underwater during an open water training day at a quarry near Jefferson City on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018. Heitman regularly helps Jeff Adams, owner of SCUBA Adventure, with his classes. The student is learning how to equalize her ears while staying buoyant underwater. By pressing on her nose and gently blowing out she can get her ears to release the pressure created by the water. Without equalizing, divers can run the risk of bursting their eardrums.

But, Adams doesn’t only teach specialty classes, he also teaches rescue diving classes where he emphasizes his SCUBA motto to his students.


“I teach this to anyone going through my rescue classes,” said Adams, “I tell them to evaluate the situation. If it’s going to be putting your life on the line, it’s not worth it.” 


Adams believes that there is no such thing as panic in SCUBA diving. Panic can often cause heavy breathing which in turn can lower your air source. He also says that it can put you in challenging position where you may feel trapped, but he argues that there is always a way out.


“You live by that rule, you just don’t panic and you don’t get frightened underwater,” said Adams, “that’s when things go bad.”

Jeff Adams’ first SCUBA dive card sits dormant on a table surrounded by SCUBA gear that both he and his students use on Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018. Adams has had an extensive career in diving. He lived alone on an island for two years where he dove regularly for food. He has also lived in the Bahamas where he discovered submerged boats dating back to the 18th century which are not yet known to the world. Moreover, he worked in Panama, salvaged boats, recovered lost things, and served as a rescue diver. Now, he owns SCUBA adventure a dive shop in Jefferson City where he rents out items and trains Mid-Missouri divers in a variety of disciplines.