Investigation launched into diver’s death on Lake Norman; ‘very sad day’

An inquiry into the death of a rescue diver on Monday will include a focus on the gear he and two other firefighters were using when they were stricken in the depths of Lake Norman, authorities said Tuesday.

Bradley Long, 28, a volunteer captain at Sherrills Ford-Terrell Fire and Rescue and a full-time firefighter for the city of Newton, died Monday trying to recover a swimmer’s body in deep, murky water near the Marshall Steam Station.

He was the second Charlotte-area firefighter to die in the line of duty in a month, and the fourth from North Carolina. All of the recent North Carolina firefighter deaths were associated with volunteer departments, whose members are more likely to die during calls and rescues than their professional counterparts, experts say.

The two other divers involved in Monday’s search on Lake Norman surfaced on their own and were hospitalized at Lake Norman Regional Medical Center in Mooresville. One was released, and the second was held overnight for observation.

Investigators have not said what they suspect went wrong in the search for the missing swimmer, identified Wednesday as 29-year-old Isaiah Cruz. Cruz and two other boaters jumped into Lake Norman on Sunday, but Cruz never resurfaced. The search for his body stretched over two days. It was ultimately recovered by divers with the Charlotte Fire Department.

Karyn Yaussy, Catawba County emergency management coordinator, said she expected the investigation into Long’s death to be lengthy. 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.

But Yaussy wouldn’t speculate further about what went wrong.

According to its website, Sherrills Ford-Terrell Fire and Rescue uses a 2007 Scott Air Trailer to fill scuba tanks for divers and air tanks for firefighters. But the department hasn’t released specifics about the diving gear or the nature of Long’s emergency.

‘His loss is a reminder’

Long had volunteered 12 years with Sherrills Ford-Terrell Fire and Rescue, where he started as a junior firefighter at age 14.

He joined the Newton Fire Department as a part-time firefighter in 2007, rising to become a full-time fire engineer in 2011. Last year, he was promoted to captain at the department, and this year, the Newton Elks Lodge named him Fireman of the 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.”

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. ”

Volunteer firefighter dangers

More than two-thirds of the firefighters in America are volunteers, who also make up about the same ratio of firefighter deaths.

That ratio has been higher in North Carolina in recent years. From 2010 to 2014, 20 of the 28 firefighters who died in the state were from volunteer departments.

Still, rescue divers are among the most well-trained, experts say, and deaths are rare for firefighters in those units.

Mike Berry, the founder of Underwater Criminal Investigators, in Richmond, Va., said one study estimates two to three rescue divers die each year.

They become entangled by lines, debris and trash. They dive in contaminated water and have to worry about pricks from sharp objects, he said. “Another big danger is running out of air.”

Tim Klima, president of the Piedmont Diving and Rescue Association, which has training facilities in North Carolina and Virginia, said Long’s team trained at one of their three quarries.

Klima, a diver, said he has dived in Lake Norman a few times, and the water’s visibility depends on location. “In certain coves, you can’t see your hand if you’re sticking it out in front of you,” he said.

Still, Berry said, the challenges of diving in Lake Norman would likely be included in rescue divers’ training and preparation.

“With public safety diving, you train for that; it’s not like recreational diving,” he said. “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.”

Staff writer Joe Marusak and researcher Maria David contributed.

Cleve R. Wootson Jr.: 704-358-5046, @CleveWootson

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