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Sonar device helps find body

Quincy police aid search for boater

The side-scanning sonar skims the water, connected to a tether, and relays sonar images back to a laptop on the boat. The device was effective in helping to locate the body of Juan Guzman. The side-scanning sonar skims the water, connected to a tether, and relays sonar images back to a laptop on the boat. The device was effective in helping to locate the body of Juan Guzman. (Handouts)
By Brian R. Ballou
Globe Staff / July 18, 2009
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Quincy police Officer Ken Wood watched the futile search for the body of an Iraqi War veteran in the Merrimack River in Lawrence on television earlier this week. Juan Guzman, a father of four, had fallen unconscious from a boat into the murky waters Sunday. Guzman’s wife sat on the banks of the river, watching the exhaustive search effort, her grieving witnessed by hundreds of onlookers.

By Tuesday night, Wood decided his department should get involved. He called his supervisor, Lieutenant Robert Gillan, head of the Quincy Police Marine Division, and Gillan called Lawrence Police Chief John Romero, who welcomed them to join in the search.

On Wednesday morning, Wood and Gillan traveled to Lawrence, bringing with them an $80,000 portable remote-controlled submersible equipped with a camera, the same hardware they had used last month to recover the body of a young Marine from Milton who had died after taking a plunge in the Quincy Quarries. Gillan also called on Gary Kozak, a sonar specialist from Salem, N.H., who brought a $45,000 sonar scanner with him.

In 30 minutes, the three men found Guzman’s body, allowing Guzman’s wife, Alcione Souza, who had kept a vigil throughout the search, to take her husband home for burial.

“It’s about helping a grieving family, helping to give them a bit of closure,’’ Wood said. “Those divers who were out there, they did everything they could. They gave a noble effort. This equipment gives law enforcement an advantage.’’

Kozak used a side-scanning sonar, a small torpedo-like device that floats on the surface and scans the bottom. The instrument relayed images back to a laptop.

After Kozak determined an image to be a human body, Wood deployed the submersible, the Explorer, for visual confirmation. Divers then followed the Explorer’s tether to Guzman’s body.

This type of technology has been around for several decades, but its use in law enforcement has risen sharply in the past five years, said Brian Luzzi, spokesman for VideoRay, which manufacturers the Explorer and other models.

While the equipment remains expensive, the cost of sonar equipment and submersibles has dropped as the technology has improved.

The cost of searches, such as the one conducted at the Merrimack River, can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, but with the instruments, the cost is limited to the salaries of the operators, in this case, two officers and a consultant. The Quincy Police Department, like many other departments, bought its equipment with a Homeland Security grant.

The Boston Police Department does not have such devices, but spokeswoman Elaine Driscoll said the department is strongly considering purchasing them. She said that whenever the department has a case involving an underwater search, it calls on Quincy.

Kozak said a sonar scanner was used Thursday by the New Hampshire Marine Patrol to locate a drowning victim in Lake Massabesic. The US Coast Guard uses submersibles and sonar to check the hulls of large ships for explosives or to search for mines.

Gillan, a Coast Guard Reserve commander, helped in the search 10 years ago for John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, and her sister, after Kennedy’s plane went down in waters off Martha’s Vineyard. It was the first time Gillan saw the sonar at work.

“I thought to myself, we could really use that at the department,’’ Gillan said. The department purchased the submersible five years ago and this year bought the side-scanning sonar, which should be delivered in about a month. Operating the scanner takes expertise, and the department will probably call on Kozak, who has 36 years of experience in underwater searching, for future recovery efforts.

Operating the Explorer is like being an instrument-rated pilot, Wood said. “It’s not as easy as a video game. You have to think in 3-D and you have to basically keep a map in your head as you go along. I use the debris I see on the bottom as reference points.’’

Wood said he trains at least once a month.

“It’s necessary because it’s a diminishing skill,’’ he said. “If you don’t practice, you lose it.’’