Vehicles recovered from Mesa pond

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldNovember 18, 2012 

MESA -- The 1996 Chevrolet Silverado didn't look its best when it broke the surface of Cox Pond early Saturday afternoon.

The truck was on its side and the rusty blisters covering its undercarriage after more than a decade underwater were clearly visible as it was winched ashore. More damage was evident once the vehicle was righted -- forest green paint dulled with slime, windshield and windows smashed in, upholstery saturated with mud.

But more than one person from the several law enforcement agencies helping to recover the truck and others from the pond commented on how great its tires still looked.

"I'll bet you more than anything those were brand new when it went in (the water)," said Franklin County Sheriff's Deputy Terry Brown.

The Silverado was one of eight vehicles found in the artificial pond just north of Mesa since February. Of those identified, most were reported stolen as long as 10 years ago.

Authorities said the vehicles could have been dumped intentionally to claim the insurance. Getting them back on land would aid in insurance fraud investigations but Saturday's efforts took a lot of manpower and hours and to pull off, as well as technology -- in the form of Franklin County's underwater search and rescue robot, SARbot.

Brown said authorities were first tipped off about the pond, on land overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, after a fisherman saw the back end of a Cadillac Escalade 15 feet below the surface last winter.

While recovering that vehicle, a few more were found underwater. Since that time, Brown said he's gone out to the pond a few times to train with SARbot and search for more vehicles. The main purpose of SARbot, built by robotics company Seabotix, is to help in rescue missions when someone is reported missing in water, but Brown said the device also is useful in underwater property recovery.

For Saturday's operation, Brown used SARbot's sonar to find several other vehicles -- a Lincoln Navigator, a Ford F-150 and Chevrolet S-10 -- arranged around the edge of the pond. Their locations were marked with bright pink arrows painted on the pond's steep stone cliffs.

"I'm pretty sure someone didn't want to keep making payments," Brown said.

Columbia Basin Dive Rescue, divers from the Grant County Sheriff's Office and Kennewick-based diving specialist Mark Allen -- all of them volunteers -- took it from there.

They attached air bags to each vehicle that lift as much as 1,000 pounds each, raising them to just a few feet below the water's surface. The vehicles then were hauled by boat to tow trucks waiting on the shore to pull them the rest of the way out so they could be taken to Pasco to be impounded.

The water in the pond was chilly and the vehicles were in water as deep as 80 feet. Ryan Hintz of Columbia Basin Dive Rescue said visibility was 4 inches at that depth, requiring multiple dives to secure the air bags. Tri-City Water Follies also provided a boat to help out.

There also were unforeseen difficulties, such as one vehicle being so stuck in the mud it took hours for the air bags to finally lift it out. It took three attempts to pull the Silverado from the water, as the straps connecting it and a tow truck winch kept coming apart.

"Everything is 10 times harder underwater," said Dan Nelson, a search and rescue volunteer and safety officer with the Grant County Sheriff's Office.

The Silverado, the first pulled out, was reported stolen in the late 1990s in Adams County. A few other vehicles with license plates were reported stolen in Franklin County during the past decade or so.

Brown said in addition to insurance fraud charges, anyone found responsible for dumping the vehicles also could face federal charges for the environmental damage the vehicles caused, evidenced by the sheen of oil that appeared on the pond as the divers worked or seen in the oily water that drained from the vehicles after they were on land.

"There's a significant environmental impact because (the pond) provides water to the food we eat," Brown said.

The volunteers and deputies only were able to pull three vehicles from the water Saturday because of problems they encountered.

But Brown said he was happy with the accomplishment, thanks to the team of volunteers whose only payment was food and drink provided by Walmart and Coca-Cola of Pasco.

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