CSI Underwater

An Exacting Crime-scene Science

Getting Their Feet WetTeaching Underwater CSI Techniques at FSU

By Tony Bridges

Crime-scene work is tough, with all the exacting science and attention to detail. There’s little margin for error. A mistake could free a killer or convict an innocent person. Imagine doing that job underwater, wearing flippers and an air tank.


That kind of extreme multitasking is what Florida State University teaches at its Panama City campus in the Underwater Crime Scene Investigation program.

“I just thought it sounded incredibly fascinating,” said Kim Fitzpatrick, 44, who recently finished her first semester.

It’s the first university course of its kind – an 18-month program split into five classes covering basic and advanced diving, evidence collection, chemistry, biology and engineering.

The classroom and pool training are conducted at FSU’s waterfront complex in Panama City. The ocean portion takes place in the Gulf of Mexico on the Seanole, a retired Coast Guard cutter.

Fitzpatrick said the training is physically and mentally demanding. The course requires six hours each week of classes, along with homework, gear prep and weekend dives.

Law-enforcement agencies regularly ask for help from faculty members, and they take students along with them, said Mike Zinszer, a diving and science instructor.

“I can’t think of a semester when we didn’t have students on an actual crime scene,” he said. “We didn’t want to stand here as academics with unproven techniques.”

Faculty and students have even been to Aruba – twice – to help search for missing American teen Natalee Holloway. The team was diving in a cavern with a heavy tidal surge that continually shoved them  and threatened to suck them out. They wore an extra 60 pounds of weights, besides their normal gear, to maintain stability.

That, while still trying to search for a body or any minute signs of a crime. Those kinds of conditions are good training for the students, who are told to think of the diving portion of their jobs simply as the daily commute to work.

“They need to be comfortable with their equipment and their environment so they can focus on the task at hand,” Zinszer said.

Melissa Adams graduated in 2005 with the third batch of students. She said instructors pushed them to anticipate mishaps and to instantly adjust to new environments.

That’s hard stuff for an admittedly unathletic 33-year-old mother and former day-care owner who had started out to be an English major. But she made it through, one of three graduates of a class that had started with 12. The training landed her a job with the crime-scene unit of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. And it has seen her through dives that have included five body recoveries, an ax murder and a hush-hush cold case.

Adams has no doubt that, despite the tough program and the sometimes gruesome work, she made the right choice.

“It’s really a unique experience,” she said. “I feel like I’m a much stronger, much better person than I was to begin with.” 

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