Nov 18, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff WriterRaising their bodies from the bottom of a 600-foot lake after 33 years is possible -- but it's anything but easy
An expert in underwater salvage thinks recovering the bodies of Virginia Uden and her sons, Richard and Reagan, from the bottom of Fremont Lake would be possible.
Jim Cross, the owner of Cross Marine Projects of American Fork, Utah, said the human remains and steel drums they are in probably are in good condition as well.
Cross's company has been sending divers underwater on construction projects for 38 years. The business also has been involved in underwater recoveries of tsunami victims' bodies and crashed airplanes.
To the bottom
Virginia Uden's ex-husband, Gerald Uden, admitted last month that he sealed his three victims in metal drums in 1980 and submerged them in more than 450 feet of water at the bottom of Fremont Lake, high in the Wind River Mountains in neighboring Sublette County.
The body of water is more than 600 feet deep in places.
"Even after that period of time... most of these drums were coated, so the drums will be intact," Cross said. "At the depths we're talking about, very few fish or destructive organisms live in these high-sierra lakes."
He based his opinion on recovering objects from Rocky Mountain lakes and bodies buried in drums from a lake on the East Coast.
The depths that would be involved are too much for scuba diving, during which a person breathes from an air tank and the exhalations go into the water. Cross said his team would wear pressurized diving suits.
"Our divers look just like astronauts," Cross said. "They're fed air and mixed gas from the surface so we can safely reach these depths and do a search."
The gas reaches divers through a long tube from the surface. As they go farther and farther down, the pressure changes, so the crew at the surface has to change the gas they feed the divers, Cross said.
They lower the proportion of oxygen, and at deep depths, the crew replaces nitrogen with helium in the right proportions.
Along with the special breathing system, the divers wear rigid helmets and don suits that control pressure and circulate warm water to protect them from the cold.
Their helmets carry lights, communications systems and video cameras, and cables for those follow the gas hose to the surface. Cross estimated a dive to the Uden bodies would require about 800 feet of hose and cable.
Allowing divers' bodies to adjust to lower pressure as they resurface would take several hours and precise calculations.
As they rose, the surface crew would order the divers stop at every few dozen feet and spend 20-30 minutes to allow their bodies to acclimate.
Where to search?
Careful planning and even more specialized equipment would be necessary to find the bodies.
In situations like the Uden case, Cross said he would ask Gerald Uden 30 to 40 specific questions to identify a location.
Even if the person's memory is hazy, Cross asks questions to see if the perpetrator can remember seeing a specific mountain or points of land sticking into the lake and where drop point was in relation to those landmarks.
He aims to figure out three points of land the perpetrator remembers and then triangulate a position from there. Cross takes into account factors such as currents and comes up with an area to search.
Gerald Uden is now 71 years old. He says he dumped the bodies into the water in the fall of 1980.
The search area established, Cross's boats then follow a grid, guided by GPS systems, to search the area he developed with sonar.
The device identifies any changes in density, indicating a hard object, such as steel, as well as trapped air.
"Even though they're from 1980, and they might be partially covered in silt, it can look down into the silt and show you what's buried," Cross said.
After examining the sonar data, he identifies "high probability targets," or objects that may be what he is looking for, to investigate further. He marks them on his GPS system.
With metal objects, Cross said he often uses magnetometers. The devices look like torpedoes and are used to detect metal. Cross drags them behind his boats over the marked area to see if the objects he identified with sonar are metallic.
With his targets located, Cross then can send down either divers or remotely operated vehicles. A remote-control submarine -- a3-by-3-by-4-foot device-- can descend to the objects with sonar, lights and video cameras so the searchers can see what the items are. Using the machines keeps divers out of danger, and it can be easier, Cross said.
With either human divers or robotic ones, Cross again uses the GPS coordinates to send the searcher directly to the object.
To the surface
To retrieve it, divers wear weighted belts to keep them on the bottom of the lake so they can walk to the object. If a diver finds an object, the surface crew sends cables and harnesses down their gas tubes and electronic cables.
The diver then attaches the harness to a lifting device.
The remotely operated vehicle can use an arm to attach a cable to the object so it can be brought to the surface.
With the right equipment, the whole process would take about a week, Cross said.
A crew could recover the bodies in the summer, working from boats. In the winter, the crew would need to set up an inflatable platform on ice on the lake for their equipment. The crew would cut holes in the ice to send down divers or the remotely operated vehicles.
Gas bubbles sent up from divers are warm, Cross said, and can weaken the ice. The inflatable platform floats in case the ice breaks.
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