July 26, 2014

They'll Save Your Life (And Your Purse)

While patrolling the Gulf of Mexico near Naples, Dave Johnson of the Collier County Sheriff’s Marine Bureau knew the dark plume two miles away was more than just diesel exhaust smoke. He rushed to the scene and found an elderly couple aboard a blazing cabin cruiser. “I knew I had one shot to get in there,” he says. “You worry about an explosion.”

Johnson jumped aboard and helped the couple onto his boat. But the drama wasn’t yet over. While the woman yelled, “My purse! My purse!” Johnson jumped back onto the burning boat and retrieved it.

“We’re a full-service agency. We aim to please,” he says, joking about it now. “About 30 seconds after we got off the boat, the Halon fire suppression system went off. It enveloped the entire boat in a white cloud to remove the oxygen. If they’d been in there, they both would have died.”

I have to coax such “war stories” from the modest Johnson when I visit him to learn about life at “Jay MOC,” the Joint Marine Operations Center on Marco Island. He’s an interesting mix of pressed-uniform formality and avuncular tone. And he is quick to point out that such dramatic events don’t happen every day. But, Johnson says, “Certain things happen where you know you did something that made a distinct difference. This was one of those days.”

After 15 years as a road patrolman and criminal investigator with the sheriff’s office, Johnson turned to marine law enforcement two decades ago. Now a lieutenant, he oversees the administrative side of JMOC, as well as the sheriff’s office agriculture and mounted patrol units. While all special operations officers require distinctive talents, marine cops need all the skills of a regular officer plus a captain’s license. “Water adds that extra dimension, additional complications,” Johnson explains. “On land, things stop the way they’re supposed to. But out there, everything’s fluid—dynamic. My guys can’t call for backup and expect it to show up in five minutes. It’s a highly dangerous way to make a living.”

Johnson says the officers are trained in SWAT, K-9 and hostage negotiation, all integrated for marine. They’ve even had to talk a heavily armed man out of committing suicide on his boat 20 miles offshore.

Johnson’s men—today a team of eight—have rescued more than 20 people and earned a dozen lifesaving medals in the past 15 years. The unit is the public’s first point of contact for any kind of trouble in Collier County waters. On a given day, it handles all kinds of cases: marine mammal and boating safety, search and rescue, coastal defense and human smuggling.

In the JMOC conference room, Johnson spreads out a navigational chart of the Straits of Florida, pointing out smuggling routes from Florida’s west coast through the Dry Tortugas on the way to northwestern Cuba. His men are instrumental in fighting organized crime. Since 9/11, the Marine Bureau has been cited for innovative training and enforcement methods that have helped to break down a multimillion-dollar smuggling ring based in Miami and Collier and Lee counties.

With stricter border controls in place, Collier County hasn’t recorded any illegal immigration landings by water since December 2006, when more than 20 Cubans made landfall near Naples Pier after smugglers whisked them on a 10-hour speedboat trip. A Port Royal resident noticed the émigrés in the neighborhood and called the police. Johnson’s colleagues made sure the “dry foots” were warm and fed, and gave their children stuffed animals while they waited to be processed by border patrol agents.

Johnson remembers another time, years ago, responding to a group of Cuban men, women and children in a fishing boat sinking fast six miles off Wiggins Pass. “A safe number would have been six or eight people on a 30-foot boat. They had 34 people. They were coming out of every hatch. They didn’t know where they were. They’d been out at sea almost a week. They didn’t have enough food or water. They were darn glad to see anybody. Some were laughing. Some were crying.” Using portable pumps to keep the boat afloat, his team was able to rescue everyone.While human smuggling has gained more public attention over the years, drug smuggling is not the problem it was in the 1970s and ’80s, when the area around Everglades City and Chokoloskee was known as Collier County’s “Wild West.” “We don’t see a lot of drugs coming in by boat anymore,” Johnson says. “Since 9/11, smugglers have found better ways.”

But still, Collier County’s 500 square miles of coastal waters, plus the canal system, is a huge area for the Marine Bureau’s small force to cover. So the bureau cooperates with federal and local agencies including U.S. Coast Guard, Fish and Wildlife Service and Customs and Border Protection.

Most of Johnson’s time now is tied up with paperwork and phone calls—in short, the daily grind. He notices me staring longingly at the water. “Let’s get you out there!”

The Goal: Stop Disasters Before They Happen
Sgt. Dave Bruening, the Marine Bureau’s operational supervisor, walks me out to the gleaming white speedboat on the canal behind the station. He’s a reserved, solidly built guy in his early 40s with tanned arms and wraparound sunglasses. On this particular Monday, he tells me, the waters are probably going to be quiet.

Bruening maneuvers us out into the bay and heads north toward Naples, with one radio tuned into the sheriff’s office and the other on VHF 16—the channel for distress calls. He explains that most of the team’s work is proactive, not reactive. In 2008, the sheriff’s office responded to 30 boating accidents—a small figure considering 25,000 vessels are registered in Collier County. Nevertheless, “a couple of us are out here all the time,” he says. Johnson says their efforts, plus comprehensive speed zones, have reduced the accident rate from 100 per year in 1994.

That’s not to say fatalities don’t still occur. “The beginning of last year was the most calamitous accident we ever had,” Johnson told me, referring to a high-speed accident in which five of six passengers died upon impact as the bow entered the water. “We still have boating fatalities in Collier County, but it is an extremely safe place to boat. It’s safer than the Keys, Miami, Tampa. We have some very responsible boaters here. Usually we have zero to two fatalities a year, and those are usually drownings.” Bruening says most of the Marine Bureau’s patrol work involves routine safety inspections. “If people have the right equipment on board, their probability of surviving an accident goes up,” he says. You don’t need a license to drive a boat. But unlike road cops, marine officers don’t need probable cause to pull a boat over. 

They also have to pay attention to subtle signs of trouble. Johnson says a few years back, Deputy Rocco Marion, now retired, was patrolling near Naples Bay when he came across floating debris and deduced it had come from a sinking boat. He followed a scant trail of flotsam for about seven miles before finding a boater on the verge of drowning, clinging to the wreckage. Marion earned a lifesaving medal for his actions.

As if to illustrate his point about proactivity, Bruening cuts the engine and ties up to a small Jon boat containing a pair of white-haired men with fishing poles. The encounter is brief and cordial. “This is the third time this week we’ve been inspected,” the driver says, showing Bruening two lifejackets (check), throwable device (check), sound-producing device (check) and fire extinguisher (check).

“That’s great, sir—just means we’re out here getting the word out,” Bruening says. “Now let me have a look at those fish you’ve got there.” The other man, wearing a Minnesota T-shirt, opens the hatch on his cooler. “Two whiting and a snapper,” he reports. The fish look to be well within the size limit. Two minutes after we’ve stopped, we’re on our way with a friendly wave.

Bruening types a record of the encounter into a laptop anchored to the boat’s dashboard. His entries provide the dispatcher with a map of the territory covered and our location in the event of an emergency. He says he likes helping people get out of sticky situations before they turn into something more dangerous, such as when a nighttime kayaker got lost in the Ten Thousand Islands and tried to navigate his way home with an iPhone.

“He had been paddling several hours when we got the call that he was lost,” Bruening says. “I got our air unit to fly the area, pick him out and give us his location. That phone works fine if you want to find the intersection of Vanderbilt and 41, but it has no marine charts to navigate. He was out there going in circles around the islands, probably five or six hours.”

In some cases, it’s wildlife that need rescuing. “One time these guys waved me over to their boat off Keewaydin Island,” Bruening says. “They had their eye on a loggerhead turtle who was floating on the surface and wasn’t able to move.” The sergeant called someone at Briggs Nature Center who determined that the poor beast had a respiratory infection from the red tide. They had him fixed up and back in the water in no time. “That was not exactly an adrenaline rush,” he says, “but still very cool.”

As we round the final bend of our three-hour tour, Bruening cranes his neck and points across to a 15-foot motorboat just nosing out of Capri Pass. “That’s a lot of people for one boat,” he says, turning around for a closer look. As we approach, I notice the annoyed expressions on the passengers’ faces. Looks like an extended family visiting for the holidays. Their pleasure cruise has been derailed.

Bruening performs the safety check, and the captain comes up short on several counts: eight lifejackets for 12 passengers, no functional fire extinguisher, no registration and no flares. Bummer. “I’m only going to write you one citation for these violations,” Bruening says. But the sting of a $90 ticket is nothing compared to the effect of the words that follow: “But I am going to have to ask you to head back to the dock now.”

“I know I’ve ruined their day,” he says afterward. “But that was a disaster waiting to happen.” As we wrap things up, I say my farewells to Bruening and Johnson, conscious of a burgeoning respect for authority kicking around in my brain.

A few days later, I jump in a kayak with friends for a long paddle down Faka Union Canal to Panther Key. This time we bring along a few whistles and an extra life vest. And I’ve got the Marine Bureau number programmed into my cell phone—just in case.

Christine Buckley is a writer based in Paris. Slave Hunter: One Man’s Global Quest to Free Victims of Human Trafficking (co-authored with Aaron Cohen) will be published by Simon & Schuster Spotlight on June 23.  

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