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Bagging a body underwater is a more professional recovery procedure. This practice not only protects the loss of valuable evidence, it also protects family members from seeing a loved one under adverse conditions, and keeps photographers from taking pictures of the body which can later horrify the victim's family.
The following is the body bagging technique I designed after years a bagging bodies underwater. What is clear is that you need a method of controlling the bag and body while the body is being placed inside. If you just simply go down and grab a body and start stuffing, you quickly learn that it could have been done a lot easier and with a lot less possible evidence loss if you had a step-by-step procedure to follow while underwater. I have used every method known to man. I believe once you try this method, you will agree that it is effecient and effective.
When practical, all bodies should be bagged underwater in the location where the victim was found. The only time I change my bagging procedures is when the conditions or environment dictate. These procedures secure all evidence and items belonging to the victim from being lost during the recovery. They also make it easier to handle the body during recovery and provide further protection to the divers as well as the victim. You will notice that the body is being moved very little during bagging which helps eliminate loss of evidence and getting bottom debris in your bag. With a little practice, these procedures will become very easy and quick to perform:
1. I usually follow the buoy line back down to the victim with my bag and get into a position on my knees (upstream if required) at about the center mass of the victim (prior to taking down the bag, I have unzipped the bag, folded and rolled it up nice and tight to take it down with me). I then locate the marker buoy line and place it on the other side of the victim if it's not already there. Next I place my bag just to the left or right of me, beside my leg. I then roll the victim over into my lap very carefully (I'm on my knees sitting on my heels). This position, exposes the area underneath the victim as well as allowing me to control the victim by feel, an especially necessary capability in zero visibility.
2. I then take my body bag, unroll and unfold it with the zipper side up. I position it so that I have the (approximate) center of the bag in line with the centerline of the victim's body. Once the bag is in this position, I carefully tuck the half that's closer to the victim underneath the victim from head to toe. The other half of the bag I spread out away from the victim.
3. I then roll the victim very carefully off my knees and lap and down on top of the body bag. I then reach underneath and pull the rolled portion I had tucked underneath out and over the victim.
4. Next, I carefully tuck the victim into the bag. Before zipping, make sure the victim is completely inside and the zipper is not obstructed. You do this by starting at one end and placing the two sides of the zipper together and work your way to the other end. If something is hanging out, you can stuff it inside. If you do not do this and attempt to zip the bag, when you do get to a point on the zipper where something is hanging out, the zipper can break. Remember we are training as if we are doing this in zero visibility. Now that everything is inside, slowly zip the bag closed while holding the two sides together. It's important not to pull hard on the zipper during this process because it is easily broken due to the water, the stress, the debris, and your nervousness. If the zipper you are working with breaks, go to the zipper at the other end. I use only one zipper and zip the bag from top to bottom (rather than having the two zippers meet in the middle). This leaves the other zipper as a back-up. If both zippers break, the bag is useless and the victim and evidence will be fully exposed to the elements and contaminants.
5. Breaking rigor - It might be necessary to break rigor mortis in an arm or leg that is extended away from the body making it difficult to bag the victim. Breaking rigor is done by grabbing the limb and with pressure (sometimes a lot of pressure), breaking the hold it has on the limb. Once it's broken, you can then maneuver the limb inside the body bag. It's also very important to record the fact that you had to break rigor, on which limb, and why. This information will be helpful to the medical examiner during his/her examination of the body. Once rigor is broken, it does not reset in the limb. The photo to the right shows me bagging a body we recovered on the surface. I had to break rigor in the victims arms to get him into the bag.
6. Once the victim is inside the body bag and the bag is zipped and secured, I carefully move the body bag over a few feet away from the exact spot where the victim was located. I then locate my marker buoy line (usually by feel) and place it in the center of where the victim had been lying. Throughout this bagging procedure, my position never changes. Once I position myself on my knees next to the victim's hips (center of mass), I work in the same spot and position the entire time. The only time I move is when I'm ready to surface. By staying in one spot and not moving once I've set up, even though I can't see because of the zero visibility, I'm still able to see with my mind's eye. I can visualize where the victim, the marker buoy line, body bag, my partner, the search line, and the closest up-and-down line are located. It might sound complicated, but it's not. It just takes practice.
7. If because of the conditions I choose to put the marker buoy directly on the victim, the procedure changes only slightly. I still remove the marker buoy prior to placing the victim in the bag. But once I have the victim inside and secured, if I need to I connect the marker buoy line to the body bag. This is done by finding a carrying strap on the bag and placing the weight and line inside the open strap and giving it a few wraps.
8. After I have marked the location where the victim was found, I surface with the victim. I do this by making myself neutral and swimming to the surface holding onto the body bag. I can do this either with my partner's assistance or alone. While ascending I either use my closest up-and-down line or I ascend from the place the victim had been lying on the bottom, being very careful not to get caught up in the marker buoy's line. I don't use lift bags even though I know of some recovery divers who do. I prefer to "balls" it up. On an average you're talking about lifting 10-20 pounds of negative weight. The tricky part is not the weight, it's ascending with an awkward body bag.
9. Once you surface the first thing you should do is make yourself buoyant. This will help you handle the body bag on the surface . Once you get the victim to shore or to a boat, it's important to place the body bag in a stokes basket for support during removal of the victim from the water. This will prevent the bag from ripping open due to its added weight (body and water inside) if it is dragged over rocks and stumps or if someone grabs the handles and tries to use them to lift the body out of the water. The handles usually will not hold all that weight. Plus, a stokes basket is easier to carry (has better handholds) than a body bag.
10. When removing the body bag from the water, it's important to take your time and remove the bag slowly and a little at a time. This allows the water to drain from the bag so you end up carrying the weight of the victim and just a little water rather than hundreds of pounds of water. I usually take advantage of the downhill slope of the shore to drain as much water as I can through the grommets before attempting to pick up the basket and bag.
11. After the victim has been removed from the water, it's important to go back and re -search the area where the victim was found. This search needs to be a detailed search for whatever might have come out of the victim's clothing or off the victim's person. The entire area then needs to be cleared just in case other physical evidence was thrown in as well, like the murder weapon used.
Remember - During the recovery, divers should never grab the victim's hands because of the possibility of loss of skin and tissue that can be used to help identify the victim. Also, the bagging procedures discussed here, or whatever bagging procedures you prefer to use, need to be practiced until they can be done in zero visibility and with gloved, cold hands.