LAKE CONROE- When a 66-year-old Walker County man on a fishing trip with his grandson disappeared into the waters of the northern portion of Lake Conroe Monday morning, officials in that county called on one of Montgomery County’s greatest resources, the Pct. 1 Dive Team.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department Game Warden Stephen Ingram confirmed that the tragedy occurred after John Aaron Little of New Waverly backed his trailer down a boat ramp in the Cagle Recreation area and the boat unexpectedly came loose and drifted away from the shore. Little went into the water to retrieve it, as his nine-year-old grandson waited. Little disappeared beneath the water’s surface for unknown reasons, and never resurfaced.
Ingram said Walker County rescue crews responded and contacted the Pct. 1 Constable’s Office Dive Team, led by Dive Master Vernon Miller. They were on the water searching with sonar a little before 8 a.m., Ingram said. Pct. 1 located a target that turned out to be Little and the Walker County Dive Team made the recovery around 10 a.m.
Pct. 1 divers were prepared to take their turn under water after Walker County. Thankfully, it was not necessary.
Pct. 1 Dive Team member Cristin Cash confirmed that Miller and company used Humminbird side scan sonar to locate the victim, just as they have in so many tragedies on Lake Conroe and other locations.
One such incident occurred in the early morning hours of December 13, last year when Texas A&M student and Conroe native Charles “Chase” Bergfeld went missing in the frigid waters of Richland Chambers Lake in Corsicana. Bergfeld and nine friends were celebrating the end of the school semester. The group was in a boat, headed back to the house where they were staying after spending the previous evening at a lakeside restaurant, when the boat struck a stationary object and capsized.
Bergfeld stayed in the icy water, trying to push his friends to shore as they paddled atop the boat, but hypothermia set in and he disappeared into the water. Bergfeld’s friends survived and reached dry land, but they never saw him alive again.
Precinct 1 Dive Team members Vernon Miller, dive master and diver Mike Hill joined the search at the request of a member of Bergfeld’s family. Despite the considerable distance and extreme conditions, they agreed and were determined to bring Bergfeld home.
Area roads were closing as they arrived, because of freezing temperatures and sleet creating icy driving conditions. In the morning, the team’s GPS equipment and side scan unit were iced over and had to be placed on Miller’s pickup so they would warm up and function, which he said was a first for him.
The water surface temperature registered 47 degrees and the tow fish registered 42 on the bottom, Miller said in a December interview. The veteran diver could not recall diving in lower temperatures.
“I told the other diver, I may have been colder than this, but I can’t remember it,” Miller said.
Under the best conditions, Miller likens such a dive to “being in a closet with the lights turned off, it’s by feel.”
“Once we get down about 10 feet, you even lose all ambient light, there’s no light whatsoever,” Miller said. “A light doesn’t help, because if it’s turned on at that depth, there’s still no distance visibility- It’s like turning your lights on in a fog.”
Bergfeld was recovered in under a week, which is far less than in many winter drownings and his family is eternally grateful to the searchers, especially the Pct. 1 Dive Team.
Bergfeld’s family and friends have since formed a foundation called “C.H.A.S.E.R.” an acronym for Community Help Assistance and Support for Emergency Rescue and Recovery. The group’s mission is to support search and rescue efforts in Montgomery County.
Debbie Bergfeld, Chase’s mother, recently presented Miller with a pair of AGA masks.
“It has a self-contained breathing apparatus on the side, ambient air valve, push to talk microphone in the front,” Miller said.
The microphone allows diver to diver and diver to surface communication, which Miller said makes the job much safer.
“It gives us the ability to talk to our divers and check on their safety and their well-being while they’re underwater in this black water we dive in where there’s no visibility.”
Debbie Bergfeld said the family was told it could take 30 days to recover her son. Thanks to the efforts of volunteers with Texas Equusearch, the Pct. 1 Dive Team and others, the time was cut down to six days.
Family friends Matt and Julie Rodriguez said they went to the search area and saw firsthand how little help and support were available, which gave them a new found appreciation for Miller and the rest of Constable Chumley’s Dive Team.
“We didn’t realize how much of an effort it would take just to find his body and they spent countless hours, daylight to dark looking for chase in real frigid temperatures,” Matt Rodriguez said. “After seeing how tirelessly they work and they don’t get paid, we decided that volunteers like them needed to be supported so we started the Chase Foundation.”
The Pct. 1 Dive Team consists of Dive Master Vernon Miller; Sgt. Randy Sanson, training officer; pilots Ken Cameron and Jim Morris; Don Finley, Equipment officer; Tony Guy, Cathy Finley, Oscar Bizert, Cory Lynn, Earl Brown, Greg Smith, Joe Murdoch, Mike Hill, Gary Herrod, Cristin Cash, Jennifer Spillman and K-9 Mia.
Miller formed the team in 1993 at the request of Constable Chumley. Their efforts often go unnoticed, or credit is given to another group or organization because they have not sought the limelight.
“We don’t do this for personal recognition,” Miller said. “We do this for the families.”
Donations to C.H.A.S.E.R. can be made to the Chase Bergfeld Memorial Fund at Bank of America, located at 2900 W. Davis St., Conroe, 77304.