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Search and Recovery: The Houston County Rescue

Rachel Doornekamp   |   October 21, 2019

The lake proved to be a uniquely difficult situation for search and recovery. The man-made reservoir is the deepest lake in Alabama with a maximum depth of 300 feet.

Three months and one day after an incredibly tragic boat crash on July Fourth, the body of Kelsey Starling was recovered from Smith Lake, Alabama.

In the weeks following the accident, the Houston County Rescue Unit was dispatched to locate the body of Ms. Starling. Smith Lake proved to be a uniquely difficult situation for search and recovery. The man-made reservoir is the deepest lake in Alabama with a maximum depth of 300 feet. When the lake was made, surrounding trees were cut back 60 feet from the shore however the lake bed was left covered in trees reaching 90 feet in height, making Houston County Rescue’s job a difficult one.

We spoke to Houston County Rescue Chief and Board President Ashton Davis following the successful recovery of Ms. Starling to discuss how the team utilized their DTG3, named the Kelsey Blue, to assist in their mission.


The dense tree growth at the bottom of the lake meant that the rescue team needed a concrete plan of action in order to locate Ms. Starling. With the tricky circumstances of Smith Lake, it was determined that an ROV was necessary in order to safely complete the mission. After concluding that the other ROVs at his disposal were too large to navigate the tree growth, Davis recommended the team use the DTG3 along with a multibeam imaging sonar.

In order to conduct the search, Davis and his team began by creating a surface grid with buoys based on witness testimony. Taking into account the 2 to 1 descent rate, the rescue team determined an appropriate search area under the water based off the topside grid. The team then sent the DTG3 in a dive directly to the bottom of the lake, using a compass to head straight out 50 feet and back again in a star pattern. Utilizing the camera on the ROV, the team was able to thoroughly examine the search area. During the search Davis remarked that using “the camera rotation feature as opposed to driving and risking entanglement” was incredibly helpful. In addition, the depths of the search area often exceeded 230ft; meaning to search for 45 minutes the divers would need to spend nearly three hours decompressing. The DTG3 was able to dive all day reducing the risk and maximizing the search time for Kelsey.

Davis noted that the use of an ROV was essential throughout the search process. Maximizing both diver safety and efficiency allowed the team to conduct the search in the best way possible. “It’s going to be one of the tools in our toolbox for sure,” said Davis.

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Kelsey Starling was found in the final 300 square feet of the search area, using the camera on the ROV. After locating her, the team deliberately wrapped the DTG3 around the nearest tree to use as their diving guide line. In this case Davis noted that, “having a tether really helps.”

“By far the best piece of equipment other than divers is this ROV,” shared Davis, adding that the work possible with both human divers and an ROV makes for an ideal search and recovery team. The battery life allowed for long searches in deep and potentially dangerous waters without unnecessarily tiring divers, while the sophisticated camera provided searchers with a high quality view in waters with varying visibility.

The Deep Trekker team sends out a sincere thank you to Mr. Davis and the entire Houston County Rescue team for their incredible work, and our deepest condolences to the Starling family.

Find out more about ROVs in the search and rescue industry or speak to an industry expert for more information.

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