Underwater weekend warriors: New Jersey’s volunteer dive team

 The Garden State Underwater Recovery Unit on the Schuylkill River. (Image courtesy of Carl Bayer, GSURU)

The Garden State Underwater Recovery Unit on the Schuylkill River. (Image courtesy of Carl Bayer, GSURU)

The Garden State Underwater Recover Unit, a volunteer search-and-rescue squad, is sometimes the last resort for families in need.

When Roxborough native Shane Montgomery went missing early Thanksgiving morning, a five-week search ensued.

Days, and then weeks, passed before any evidence about his disappearance surfaced. 

Green ribbons and missing posters spread throughout Northwest Philadelphia and the region as FBI and Philadelphia police combed the area, searching the river and surrounding area with little luck. 

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The search intensified in mid-December when a nail salon released surveillance footage showing the 21-year-old walking towards the Manayunk canal after leaving the Main Street bar where he was last seen.

Days later, Montgomery’s uncle reached out to the Garden State Underwater Recover Unit, a volunteer underwater search-and-rescue squad headquartered in Milford, New Jersey — a small town on the banks of the Delaware River about 50 miles from Philadelphia.

‘However long it takes’

Greg MacTye, who was captain of the 56-year-old unit when it started the search for Montgomery says his group has a unique advantage over a government dive team.

“Local rescue squads, fire departments, police departments may have dive teams but they also do fire, rescue, police, whatever it happens to be, so their talents, time is kind of split. We are strictly underwater recovery,” said MacTye.

It took the unit four trips to Philadelphia to recover Montgomery’s body from the canal on Jan. 3.

Gerry Boylan, who took over as captain on Jan. 1 and was with the team the day Montgomery was found, says the group would have continued to return to the Schuylkill for “however long it took” to give the family closure. The divers’ only restriction is below-freezing temperatures.

“Once the river freezes over, we can’t go in because there is no river. Up until that point we are good to go,” said Boylan.

The unit is able to go wherever it needs to, and spend however long it takes, explains Boylan. The group runs on donations so they don’t have to charge families. 

“You can’t just look up in the phone book and go ‘Where are the guys who are going to go in the river and find my son or my father or my brother or my sister or whatever?’ so when they do find us that’s one less worry,” said Boylan. “We are there for the families.”

Diving to give back

All the members started off as recreational divers, heading to the Caribbean or Mexico on vacation to explore reefs or check out underwater wildlife. In 2010, one member even found the bell of the 1950s sunken ocean liner Andrea Doria in the Atlantic.

“I had no idea I would be doing this when I got my [diving] license,” said Boylan. 

As an all-volunteer squad, the members have day jobs, dedicating weekends to search efforts. MacTye says it is “an eclectic group,” full of computer programmers, mechanics, lawyers, PhDs and even a funeral director. 

Bryan Lane, a farmer who has been diving for over 30 years, says he sees the work as a way of giving back to the community and country.

“I do it because I never had to serve in the military and this is my reason — giving back to the country. This is why I do it,” he said.

Boylan adds that team member have their own reasons for choosing this very specific way of utilizing their diving talents. 

“The gentleman who found Shane, he’s here because his brother drowned years ago,” he said. “So I can’t really speak to what brings everyone together but I know once they come here and they get into the unit and get trained in how to do this particular skill they usually stick around for awhile.”

Tom McGuire has been volunteering with the unit for four years with his son. Before signing up, he asked his son if he was sure he could commit. 

“I actually asked him if he could really go out and recover someone and his answer kind of set the tone for us. He said if it was you or mom or Molly or Peg — his sisters — I would want somebody to go get them. Who is the somebody?” McGuire said. “That would be us. Here we are.”

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