Authorities said Tuesday an investigation has been launched into the death of a Sherrills Ford-Terrell rescue diver, including a focus on the scuba gear he was using.
Capt. Bradley Long, 28, died Monday during a recovery operation for the body of a swimmer who disappeared Sunday on Lake Norman.
Two other divers with Long were hospitalized at Lake Norman Regional Medical Center in Mooresville. One was released, and the second was held overnight for observation. The injured divers surfaced on their own, officials said.
Karyn Yaussy, Catawba County emergency management coordinator, said she expected the investigation into Long’s death to be a lengthy one. The investigation by the Iredell County Sheriff’s Office will include checking the gear the three divers were using, Yaussy said at a news conference Tuesday at Terrell Baptist Church.
The divers were recovering the swimmer’s body at a depth of 35 to 75 feet, Yaussy said. The swimmer’s name has not been released, said Rick Davis, the Sherrills Ford-Terrell fire chief.
Long was a full-time firefighter for the city of Newton. He also volunteered 12 years with Sherrills Ford-Terrell Fire and Rescue, where he started as a junior firefighter at age 14.
Long joined the Newton Fire Department as a part-time firefighter in 2007, became a full-time fire engineer in 2011 and was promoted to fire captain last year. He was named Fireman of the Year by the Newton Elks Lodge this year.
“My son loved what he did,” his father, Jerry Long, said at the news conference. “He loved helping people.”
Bradley Long’s family issued a statement thanking everyone for their support “during this difficult and tragic time. We ask for prayers and peace as we take time to grieve and heal today and in the days to come. He passed doing what he loved to do and was passionate about.”
Gov. Pat McCrory expressed his “sympathy and condolences” to Long’s family.
Dion Burleson, spokesman for the Denver, N.C., Fire Department, said the death has sent shock waves through the tight-knit community of firefighters and rescue personnel. “A lot of hurt is being felt,” he said.
“We are mourning the loss of Bradley,” Newton Fire Chief Kevin Yoder said. “He has been a valuable part of our department, and his impact will be remembered for many years to come by the Newton Fire Department.”
Rescue diver deaths are relatively rare, according to Mike Berry, the founder of Underwater Criminal Investigators, in Richmond, Va. He said that two to three rescue divers die per year, citing a statistic in a study done by Dive Rescue International.
“The number fluctuates. Some years it is more, some years less, some years none,” he said. “You’re usually not diving in the best conditions.”
Berry said causes of fatalities in rescue diving include entanglement, debris, trash, fishing lines and contaminated water. “Another big danger is running out of air,” he said.
“Murky water is normal. What you do as a dive team is train for that environment,” he said. “With public safety diving you train for that, it’s not like recreational diving. They get the call and they respond.
“The rescue divers themselves are very dedicated to providing a service to the public. It is very dangerous,” he said.
The Charlotte Fire Department’s dive team was called in to help in the search, off a private boat landing on Waterview Lane on the Catawba side of Lake Norman.
Around 7 p.m., firefighters from several departments converged on the scene. One emergency official could be seen holding an American flag.
Dozens of firefighters from neighboring departments gathered around 8 p.m. to escort Long’s body to a waiting vehicle. Some could be seen hugging and shaking hands with Sherrills Ford firefighters before the body was driven away.
Officials said the swimmer whose disappearance sparked the initial 911 call jumped off a boat in the water near Mooresville on Sunday.
Family members of the missing swimmer told WBTV that the 29-year-old was a strong swimmer and that he has a 2-year-old daughter and another child on the way. His pregnant wife was on the boat with him Sunday afternoon, according to WBTV.
A Charlotte Fire Department vehicle was involved in a crash in Iredell County on Monday while responding to the Lake Norman search, officials said. No injuries were reported.
Arrangements for Long’s funeral are incomplete.
“This is a very sad day for the city of Newton as we face the tragedy of losing a dedicated firefighter,” Newton Mayor Anne Stedman said. “Bradley Long was loved by his fellow firefighters, and his loss is a reminder that these men and women put their lives on the line every day.”
Staff Writers Kiana Cole and Joe Marusak contributed.