Volunteering in ‘Murky Waters’

Published 8:00 am Saturday, May 27, 2023

LAKE LINCOLN — On the shores of Lake Lincoln, Murky Waters Search and Recovery team members Chris Sessums, Justin Pennington, Daniel Farish and Deborah Farish waited for bacon hamburgers and jalapeno-cheese sausage to be grilled. They had undergone some training earlier in the day to make sure they were up to par with sonar scanning used to find cars and recover people.

Sessums, Pennington and Daniel have served or are still serving as firemen in their respective communities. Pennington suffered an injury several years ago when he fell off the roof at his home putting him on the “injury reserve,” for the Monticello Fire Department. Sessums serves with the Smyrna Fire Department and is the dive team leader for Murky Waters.

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Daniel is the founder of Murky Waters Search and Recovery and once served with the Wesson Fire Department before he got sick and took disability. He now serves with Heucks Retreat Volunteer Fire Department. His wife Deborah serves with Heucks Retreat VFD and is the Murky Water Team’s environmentalist. Daniel said he watched YouTube when he was sick and it introduced the idea of search and recovery.

“I found a YouTube channel where these guys started cleaning up the water and would find cars. One day they found a car with a person in it. Their viewership spiked and I started researching search and recovery,” Daniel said. “There are over 16,000 missing people in the US. Many are in a vehicle and when they go underwater they sometimes can’t be found. I talked to Justin, Chris and my wife and we wanted to make a company to do this.”

Murky Waters is a non-profit organization with a board of directors and is in the process of obtaining a 501C3. They do not charge families for their services and have paid for their equipment and training out of pocket. This year, they will do a year long class to prepare them for diving in swift rivers like the Pearl River and other specialized training. Once trained and certified to teach, they hope to bring dive training to Mississippi.

In search and recovery, Murky Waters uses side scan sonar and depth finders to locate vehicles on the floor of a body of water. Daniel said they would then drop a magnet down and if it magnitizes to an object they then dive to confirm it is a vehicle and if a body is found in the vehicle they treat it like a crime scene, call 911 and inform Law Enforcement. Franklin County has one cold case of a man missing and Hinds County has six cold cases.

Daniel said the group builds a case file and narrows down the waterways they can search using last recorded cell phone pings and information from family members. They wait a few months when someone goes missing because they are on the recovery side of searching.

Sessums said he has dealt with searching for a missing person when his mother went missing in Copiah County. He said the experience is why he wanted to join Murky Waters.

“Fortunately, my mother was found alive. Most don’t get that luxury. People came from all over to help me out. We had groups from Oklahoma, Florida and Texas,” Sessums said. “They volunteered their time and I wanted to pay it forward. I want to help others. I have done water rescue and search on land too. Anything I can do to bring closure to a family is a way I can give back. There were many nights I didn’t sleep because I was out searching for my mother.”

He said diving in Mississippi is difficult because of a lack of visibility. Often, divers will search by feel. Fish will also swim right into the diver’s mask and cottonmouths are a concern, he said.

Diving masks are different from fire fighting masks because firefighters are trained to never break their seal, Sessums said. It took some time to get used to but Pennington said he enjoys the feeling of being underwater and helping others in a new capacity.

“We have a pretty diverse group of people on our team. Still only two percent of the world population can scuba dive,” Pennington said. “It is like an astronaut feeling underwater. It is like you are floating in space. One of the things I have had to get used to is taking off your mask to clear it and putting it back on. In fire fighting, you never break your seal no matter what.”

At times, vehicles are removed from the body of water if they do not have a body in them. Towing companies often will come out and donate time and help to recover those vehicles. Deborah’s expertise and degree in Environmental work comes in handy when vehicles are recovered.

“In whatever area we are in we make sure everything is cleaner than before and we keep the environment clean as possible. If the vehicle was leaking oil or gas we dispose of it properly,” Deborah said. “I make sure I get in contact with the right people to avoid causing problems with any protected species.”

YouTube and Go-Fund Me are two ways the group can receive funding. Donations are greatly appreciated and if Murky Waters Search and Recovery’s YouTube channel can get to 2,000 subscribers and 4,000 watch hours they can earn ad revenue money to help fund any training and equipment. Visit murkywaterssearcha.wixsite.com for more information on how you can help.

“It is a calling and I know God is using us,” Daniel said. “He has dropped the right people in our path. Chris was a blessing. As is Deborah and Justin and many others. They help us as we do this work.”