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Wednesday, August 22, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Divers step up, then step back

Seattle Times staff reporter

In the 20 years since a group of diving buddies formed Innerspace Exploration, the nonprofit has scanned the depths of oceans and lakes for World War II-era aircraft, loot from century-old shipwrecks and pieces of the ill-fated Columbia space shuttle.

But it's a far more personal task that has brought the volunteer divers praise and gratitude from many Seattle-area families.

Because of their diving and sonar expertise, the group's members over the past 15 years have provided crucial assistance to police searching for drowning victims. Earlier this month, after a man disappeared during Seafair celebrations on Lake Washington, law-enforcement teams struggled to find him before Innerspace divers volunteered their services and found the body.

"They just brought so much closure," said Kim O'Brien, a niece of the swimmer, John Kleinz, 54, of SeaTac. "They gave us back my uncle."

Innerspace diver Tim Nesseth, who has participated in more than a dozen body-recovery missions, some from as deep as 300 feet, said he and his companions appreciate that gratitude, but try to slip away from a job before relatives and television cameras show up.

"When the family is there, it tends to bring in the emotional aspect. I prefer the diving aspect and to just know we're doing good," said Nesseth, who works as a diver and technician for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "The family can show their appreciation to the police, who do this stuff every day."

But police struggled to find Kleinz in about 200 feet of water over a large area. The Seattle Harbor Patrol, with aid from the Pierce County Sheriff's Office, spent nearly a week searching the lake without finding the man. When the Pierce County team was pulled off the job to work on another search, Seattle's officers were left with an operational depth of 100 feet because of their equipment. O'Brien said her family began considering the significant cost of hiring commercial divers.

Crayton Fenn, of Innerspace, called the Harbor Patrol to offer his help and within a day had spotted the body at 200 feet using cutting-edge side-scan sonar. He and Nesseth helped outfit a remotely operated vehicle to recover the body the next day.

When pressures and conditions are too extreme for scuba diving, the Innerspace crew turns to small, remote-controlled submersibles with limbs so intricate they can tie knots. Or they can climb into one of their Newtsuits — space-age yellow hardsuits like something out of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." Equipped with a tether to the surface, rotary joints for limb movement and a thruster pack with propellers, the Newtsuits let the divers reach depths up to 1,000 feet. "It's pretty Buck Rogers," said Fenn.

Innerspace's side-scan sonar systems are based on the work of Martin Wilcox, a medical ultrasound innovator who revolutionized obstetrics imaging. Using a torpedo-shaped housing called a "towfish" that is dragged by a search vessel, side-scan sonar produces detailed photolike images, with contours and shadows from reflected acoustic waves, but has none of the distance and visibility problems that come with traditional underwater photography.

"Fenn has been key for his sonar work," said Sgt. Edward Yamamoto of the Seattle Harbor Patrol, who has worked with Innerspace since 2003. "He reads these obscure sonar images like a doctor looking over X-rays."

Fenn is quick to play down his expertise: "They're busy with police work, and I'm out playing in the water." But he has spent tens of thousands of hours running sonar in places as far away as Uruguay and Scotland for Innerspace and his own sonar business, Fenn Enterprises.

"He is one of the top side-scan sonar guys in the world," said Nesseth, who noted that Fenn has done sonar work for the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Navy.

"The Navy wanted the best," said Nesseth. "He is the best."

When the space shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry in 2003, Fenn spent two months helping NASA search the Rayburn reservoir in eastern Texas for pieces of the shuttle and its black box, which was eventually discovered onshore.

And several months every year for the past 12 years, Innerspace divers have combed the coasts of South America, recovering cannons, jewels and assorted loot from 100-year-old shipwrecks. On these jobs, Innerspace divers are reimbursed for their expenses.

"These are the kinds of things divers dream about," Fenn said of the archeological dives on well-preserved wrecks. "You see this stuff and get all big-eyed. It's a hoot."

Innerspace has donated time in recent years to recover derelict fishing gear around the Puget Sound, collaborated with the University of Alaska on ocean-floor surveys and salvaged vehicles dumped in Eastern Washington lakes by insurance scammers.

Six of the nine vintage warplanes found in Lake Washington were first discovered by Innerspace divers, including a Navy Avenger, which crashed in a WWII training exercise, found off Magnuson Park in 2004.

Nesseth said a drowning victim is just one more objective for a search and recovery, and technical challenges keep the mind off the emotional weight of the task.

"Somebody asked me recently what it's like to look in their eyes," he said. "I don't know. I've never looked."

In the 20 years since Innerspace Exploration was founded, it has never turned a profit, occasionally covering expenses with donations and travel reimbursements. The payback, members say, is finding a sense of purpose in a favorite pastime.

"We just like to dive any chance we get," said Nesseth, who does volunteer diving for the Center for Wooden Boats when he isn't underwater for Innerspace or NOAA. "It's exciting to get out on the water and to get in it."

Brad Haynes: 206-464-3301 or bhaynes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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