College marine rescue team teaches lessons

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — When a troubled soul jumps from the Sunshine Skyway Bridge that spans Tampa Bay, the person's slim chance of survival could rest in the hands of 20-year-old Melody Chaplin and her college classmates.

Chaplin is one of about 50 students on the Eckerd College Search and Rescue Team. The school and its all-volunteer marine rescue program are approximately six miles by boat from the bridge, which is ranked fourth for suicide jumps in the United States.

Because of the school's location - where the Gulf of Mexico meets Tampa Bay - the group is often the first to respond on suicides. Their four boats are some of the closest to the bridge, closer even than the Coast Guard. The boats are docked just yards from some dorms, and the proximity to the bridge means that they have a chance of rescuing people in need.

When Chaplin and her teammates get a call about a jumper, adrenaline surges and she's out the door. Even if she's in her dorm room, studying for finals. Or watching a movie with her roommate. Or sleeping.

The emotions come later. Staff members hold a debriefing for team members after responding to a tough call.

"I trust everyone on the team," said Meg Evans, a 19-year-old sophomore.

The team was founded in 1971 to provide support for the school's numerous water-based activities. Over the years, the team's mission has expanded to help non-Eckerd mariners and is a Hollywood movie waiting to happen.

Said Aino Pihlava, a 21-year-old junior from Finland: "It made me realize how small some of the problems are that we think are huge."

Love connections have ended in post-graduation marriages. Often entire suites will be made up of EC-SAR members. Most have the same ringtone on their phones — a loud, blaring horn — and know they can call on each other at any time of the day or night.

While the 24-7 team is the only volunteer, college-based marine search and rescue group in the country, there are other college search and rescue teams around the nation. Texas A&M has a center for Robot Assisted Search and Rescue and a handful of schools perform backcountry searches.

Eckerd is also unique for handling many of the routine suicide recovery missions.

According to a website that compiles suicide statistics for the bridge, between five and 12 people commit suicide there annually. Dozens more are listed as possible suicides, and each year there are a few survivors — a near-miracle on a 197 foot bridge — at its center span.

Since 2013, the Eckerd team has found four victims, none alive. Over the years, the team has rescued survivors, but fewer than a dozen. In 2012, the team also came up with a new, nautical search pattern.

Previously, the team would steer their boats parallel to the bridge, up and down the bay. Emily Sandrowicz, a 28-year-old staff member and a former volunteer student, said the team wondered where a body would drift given the tides and currents.

The team stuffed a "mustang suit" — a full-body immersion suit — with weights to approximate an adult's size. They couldn't hurl it over the side of the bridge, but they could put it in the water underneath, with a GPS tracker attached.

They discovered their previous searches "wasted time and space," said Sandrowicz. Depending on the tide, the dummy drifted only to certain places. So they switched their search pattern to more of an expanding cone-shaped configuration and shared their results with the Coast Guard and area fire-rescue teams that also look for jumpers.

Since implementing the new pattern, area rescue teams have found 70 percent of the 14 jumpers since January 2013, Sandrowicz said.

The team also helps stranded boaters, puts out onboard fires and bails out sinking vessels of all shapes and sizes - free of charge, although mariners often give donations to the team after being rescued. Crews are on call for a 24-hour period and then get 48 hours off; the team's three paid, non-student staff members schedule the students around lectures and try not to call the students to an emergency during class.

The students receive no college credit for the extracurricular program, which is funded almost entirely by donations (the team holds a massive yard sale every year, which garners much of the annual budget). A private liberal arts school, Eckerd has about 1,800 students and a good chunk are marine science majors. Some pick the school specifically for the SAR team.

Said Meg Evans, a 19-year-old sophomore who wears a dolphin pendant around her neck: "This team has shown me that I'm a lot stronger than I thought."


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