By Tom Hays
NEW YORK — It's an eerie underwater world that few people will ever see - an unforgiving morass of mud, rocks and collapsed pilings from old piers.
But the bottom of the Hudson River is familiar territory to New York Police Department divers, who have spent three days working to retrieve the bodies of victims from Saturday's deadly collision between a sightseeing helicopter and a small plane.
Police Officer Jeffrey Dowling recovered a victim from the tourist helicopter wreckage Sunday. The body was still buckled in a seat surrounded by what was left of the aircraft, which he described as "basically a ball of metal."
Dowling, 37, is member of an NYPD scuba team that's specially trained and equipped to dive in New York City's murky waterways. Wearing dry suits and masks equipped with radios that allow them to communicate with their boat and each other, they more often are sent to retrieve the dumped bodies of homicide victims or to look for crime scene evidence like guns.
Dowling said team members on Sunday used sonar to identify possible wreckage about 30 feet below the surface. Next they attached a safety line to the objects, then descended for a closer look while grasping the line.
They had waited until they could see up to a foot in front of them - considered good visibility in the Hudson - and until the often treacherous currents had subsided. But even under those conditions, objects are identified "by feel or very close observation with a flashlight," Dowling said.
In this instance, "everything was touch or feel," he said.
What Dowling said he and partner, Detective Michael Delaney, first felt was helicopter wreckage embedded in jagged rocks and broken pilings. Then they felt a man's body in one of the seats.
"We found out he was still strapped in," he said.
The pair used knives to cut off the harness and free the body. They notified their boat of what they had found, then together lifted the victim to the surface - an ascent that took about five minutes.
Dowling was reluctant to describe his feeling about the grim assignment of recovering victims lost in the disaster.
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"I'm glad I was able to give the family some closure," is all he would say.