Efforts to find a missing boater at Smith Lake are running into unique challenges because of the forest of trees still standing in the deep water.

Kelsey Nicole Starling, 26, of Birmingham, has been missing since the night of July 4 when the Mastercraft vessel she was a passenger on collided with a pontoon boat in the Rock Creek area of the lake, about 100 yards from shore. Others made it to shore with injuries, but the search for Starling, who was a contract employees in the Birmingham City Schools system, is entering the 13th day. The driver of the vessel was charged with boating under the influence.

“The standing timber is the biggest problem in the area where the search is underway. Some of the trees are 50 and 60 feet tall, and the water is at depths of 165 feet and even 238 feet at one point,” said Phil Hutchens, a former scuba diver instructor at Wallace State, who also works with the Cullman County Sheriff’s Office dive team.

Hutchens said when Alabama Power developed Smith Lake, trees were cut down in areas where the lake water would be 60 feet or less. But where areas were planned deeper, the trees were left.

“I’m talking about small trees, but very tall ones. It’s literally a forest underwater. It would be similar to Bankhead Forest underwater,” Hutchens said.

In addition to the trees, there are steep drop-offs, which are simply natural bluffs and ravines before the lake was created. The depth of the lake is also difficult for divers who must be cautious because of the trees and the risk of decompression sickness, which is commonly called the bends in diving.

The bends is a condition arising from dissolved gases coming out of solution into bubbles inside the body on depressurisation. The symptoms, and its effects, may vary from joint pain and rashes to paralysis and death. Individual susceptibility can vary from day to day, and different individuals under the same conditions may be affected differently or not at all.

“Our divers are certified to go to about 100 feet and we can’t put them in those trees, unless sonar shows something that needs to be checked carefully,” Hutchens said. “It’s very rugged and we have the divers on standby while more work is being done with sonar.”

If Starling’s body is located at depths greater than 100 feet, technical divers who are certified to work deeper water conditions will be brought to Smith Lake.

“One thing we want everyone to know is this is a team effort of volunteers from here and out of town along with deputies and other law enforcement specialists,” Hutchens said. “Everyone is working together and committed to finding her. If we can find her, we will bring her up. We all know this is someone’s daughter and everyone is working hard for her family.”

Among the volunteers and agencies participating in the search are Daphne Search & Rescue, Cullman and Winston counties sheriff’s deputies, area volunteer firefighters and a team of Mennonites from Tennessee and Illinois.

“It’s just incredible to see the people who have stepped forward and help, to come from long distances and bring their equipment and personnel,” Hutchens said.

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David Palmer has decades of experience in the newspaper industry. He currently serves as editor of The Cullman Times.

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