Until side-scan sonar equipment became more portable and affordable this century, drowning victims who sank deeper than 70 feet usually spent eternity pressed to the bottom by water’s indifferent weight.
But high-tech gear won’t find lost souls and return their bodies to grieving families unless a patient expert with a big heart is operating the controls. That’s why desperate spouses and parents across the United States often summon Keith Cormican of Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Cormican is their last hope when local authorities quit searching for loved ones who drown while fishing, boating, paddling, or swimming.
Cormican, 61, has found victims up to 16 years after they drowned in water sometimes hundreds of feet deep. In fact, Cormican likely set a record on Sept. 27, 2020, when he led a team in recovering the body of Ryan Normoyle, 29, from 1,565 feet of water nearly nine weeks after he drowned in Lake Tahoe on the Nevada-California border.
Normoyle, a New Jersey woodworker, set up his smartphone to video-record himself doing backflips off the stern of his rental boat Aug. 10 of last year. Tragically, he likely didn’t realize the boat’s engine was still in gear when he made his final flip. When Normoyle surfaced, he couldn’t swim fast enough to catch up with the boat. He disappeared from view of the video within two minutes.
Members of the U.S. Coast Guard, Douglas County Sheriff’s Office Marine Unit, and Washoe County Marine Unit began searching for Normoyle when his boat beached that night. After analyzing GPS data from the man’s smartphone to pinpoint his last known position, searchers scanned the depths for several days without success.
They were well-equipped for the task, deploying a remotely-operated vehicle equipped with lights, sonar, and a camera they’d previously purchased from Cormican, a longtime diver, search-and-recovery instructor, and salesman for Klein Marine System’s side-scan sonar units. After those crews quit searching and resumed their usual duties, a University of California-Davis team arrived with an unmanned submarine to try to find Normoyle. They also failed.
Normoyle’s family then contacted Cormican, who runs Bruce’s Legacy, a nonprofit search-and-recovery operation. Cormican created the project in 2013 to honor his older brother, a firefighter who died in August 1995 at age 40 while searching the raging floodwaters of a swollen creek for a drowned canoeist.
Cormican has since recovered 32 drowning victims, mostly within the United States. In May 2019, he also flew to Nepal and recovered a boy’s body from a lake at 18,000 feet elevation not far from Mount Everest. Cormican asks families to cover his food and lodging but depends on donations to cover his equipment and operating costs.
Cormican is no stranger to Lake Tahoe, a massive 12- by 22-mile freshwater lake with depths down to 1,645 feet, ranking it second deepest in the U.S. behind Oregon’s Crater Lake at 1,943 feet. (For perspective, if you took the 289-foot tall U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and stacked four exact duplicates atop it, you’d still be 200 feet beneath Lake Tahoe’s surface.)
In 2017, Cormican recovered two men from separate drownings in 245 feet of water on Lake Tahoe. In fact, during three trips to California lakes and reservoirs that year, Cormican recovered six victims. A year later, he also consulted with Lake Tahoe authorities to help them recover a man who drowned in 1,062 feet of water, the previous unofficial record recovery depth.
Despite all of his expertise, Cormican knew he faced enormous challenges recovering Normoyle, who disappeared about 3.5 miles from shore in over 1,500 feet of water. Cormican was using equipment he sold to Lake Tahoe’s local search-and-rescue teams, but knew the depths would test its capabilities. Such extremes increase the gear’s weight and decrease its efficiency, stressing the operators’ controls and electronics for the remotely-operated vehicle and its 1,700 feet of cable.
It takes the ROV about a half hour to reach the bottom at 1,500 feet and roughly 45 minutes to return if the crew must tweak or adjust its gear. All those minutes increase the challenge, given that local agencies could allow Cormican only four days to complete the job with their equipment and personnel.
Cormican and his team began searching on Sept. 24, but wind-driven waves hampered their work and sent them ashore by early afternoon. The lake was calm on Sept. 25, but they soon lost power to propel the ROV, which Cormican said felt like a 350-pound anchor as they pulled it up. They rerigged the ROV so they could tow it near the bottom with a cable while studying its sonar images.
A few hours into their search on Day Two, Cormican identified a body in a sonar image 1,551 feet below. As if by magic, the ROV’s propulsion system returned. Cormican steered the ROV in close and used its crab-like claw to grab one of Normoyle’s wrists. Unfortunately, the claw didn’t hold when they tried to pull up the body. They gave up at dark.
Their equipment suffered more electrical problems Sept. 26. By the time they resolved the issues and sent the ROV down, they were running out of daylight. Then the sonar failed. They tried to relocate the body with the ROV’s camera, but gave up at dark.
Cormican started Sept. 27, Day Four, early by fixing the ROV’s power and sonar problems, reinforcing the claw’s grip, and fashioning a cinch from 1-inch webbing to fasten over the corpse’s arm. Though he and his team faced 2- to 3-foot waves, they returned to the site, sent down the ROV, and relocated the body. The cinch-strap didn’t work, however, so they grabbed ahold with the claw.
“We raised him nearly 1,000 feet, but then he slipped free,” Cormican said. “We had drifted about 300 yards, so when we relocated him he was in 1,565 feet of water. We rigged another cinch to put over his arm near the elbow and tried again. That one worked perfectly.”
Rotating in three-man teams, Cormican and his crew heaved and hauled for over two hours to drag the cable, ROV, and Normoyle’s body aboard. He estimated the combined weight was at least 325 pounds.
“Hauling up that much weight in rough water took a huge effort,” Cormican said. “We had to go slow and be careful the entire time. It took a lot of help from really special people to get Ryan back home.”