Lake Lanier search was dangerous

Though it is man-made, Lake Lanier was not conceived for recreation. It was created to provide a water and power supply for Atlanta but emerged as a popular recreational haven after reaching full pool in 1959.

At its deepest depths, exceeding 100 feet, a backwoods Atlantis survives.

Near Gainesville, off what is now Laurel Park, the remnants of Looper Speedway can be found. The concrete bleachers that surrounded the half-mile dirt track sometimes emerge when drought drains water from the lake.

Entire towns, such as Oscarville in Forsyth County, were swallowed by the waters that took five years to fill Lanier. Everything from barbed-wire fences to old chicken coops to covered bridges survive on the lake's floor.

These are some of the obstacles that make it difficult to find and recover bodies lost in the lake and that divers had to contend with in their nine-day search for 13-year-old Griffin Prince.

On Wednesday afternoon, divers found items that apparently helped lead to the recovery of the body of the Buford teen who was killed June 18 along with his younger brother Jake, 9, after a fishing boat collided with a pontoon boat driven by their father, Mike Prince.

It was on Wednesday that the search entered its most perilous phase, as divers began climbing submerged trees as high as 60 feet, where they suspect the teen's body is trapped.

"It's something we usually avoid," said Hall County Sheriff's Department spokesman Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks.

At those depths divers encounter total darkness, along with the very real threat they'll get tangled up in what Wilbanks described as an underwater forest, strewn with discarded fishing lines.

"It can get spooky down there," said Wilbanks, who was on the Hall County dive team for two years. "When you're at the bottom of the lake it's pitch black."

Each diver has a partner, the only familiar comfort at those depths, where temperatures can plunge as low as 40 degrees — even in summer.

"It's a surreal environment," he said. "Every time you bump a tree it'll shake off years of sediment that just explodes in the water."

There's also the risk of decompression sickness, or the bends. Exhaustion comes physically and mentally, say veteran divers.

"Any diver will tell you this lake is a challenge to dive in," said Capt. Jason Shivers of the Forsyth County Fire Department, which is often called upon to search for bodies missing in Lake Lanier. The lake covers 39,000 acres, making it one of the largest bodies of water in the Southeast.

Then there are the corpses never recovered or never known to be missing. No official records are kept by either the Georgia Department of Natural Resources or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but estimates by officials familiar with the lake put that number at between two and three dozen.

"It's safe to say there are bodies down there," said Chris Lovelady, a project operations manager with the Corps of Engineers.

Divers looking for Griffin — 10 from Hall County and seven from a special FBI unit — had extra incentive to keep the Boy Scout and dirt bike enthusiast from being included among those forever lost to the lake.

Besides giving closure to a grieving family, "this is still a criminal investigation," Wilbanks said.

Paul Bennett, who was driving the fishing vessel that collided with the Prince's pontoon boat, has already been charged with boating under the influence and could face homicide charges, according to DNR officials from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Jayne Mann can empathize with the Prince family.

In November 1995, Mann's close friend, Shirlee Ann Rothermel, 45, disappeared from a houseboat docked on Holiday Marina near Lake Lanier Islands.

"When you don't have closure, it makes it that much more difficult to deal with," said Mann. Divers eventually called off the search for Rothermel, though her body would surface not far from Holiday Marina roughly two months after she disappeared.

It has been an even tougher grind for the Prince family, which has yet to hold a memorial service. According to the boys' stepgrandmother, Deneice Prince, the family was waiting for Griffin to be recovered so the brothers "can be remembered together."