UPDATE: Rescued Keuka Lake diver pronounced dead at hospital

John Christensen

State Police public relations officer and Hammondsport Fire Chief comment on differing accounts

A drowning man was pulled from the frigid waters of Keuka Lake on Friday after a swift response by New York State Police scuba divers April 27. The man was alive when he was pulled from the lake, given CPR, and rushed to Ira Davenport Memorial Hospital.

State Police Sgt. Gregory Reep said the scuba team arrived on the East Lake Road scene within five minutes of the call received at 6:20 p.m.. The team located the man and pulled him out alive, Reep said. “I think that’s the fastest we’ve ever done it,” Reep said. "We’re a retrieval team, not a rescue team, but this time we just may have rescued someone.”

Sadly, that was not the case. Despite the quick response and the 49 degree water temperature, the man was pronounced dead at Davenport Hospital at 8:13 p.m.

The victim was identified as Randy R. Rhodes, 55, of Booneville Ind. Rhodes was in scuba gear clearing away zebra mussels from the water line at 10483 East Lake Road when he drowned. Sgt. Reep and fellow diver Trooper Jim Bailey discovered Rhodes almost immediately due to the clarity of the water, according to Senior Inspector Rick Kemp, about 80 feet from shore and 13 feet down.

Rhodes was an experienced diver and scuba instructor, according to Kemp. He believes drowning may be the cause of death, but that there may also be an underlying medical issue that caused such an experienced diver to drown.

An autopsy is being performed by Monroe County Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Paul Gosink. The cause of death will be released by Steuben County Coroner Steve Copp.

Troopers were assisted by the marine units from the Hammondsport and Pulteney Volunteer Fire Departments, the Steuben County Sheriff’s Office, Hammondsport Ambulance, and Rural/Metro Ambulance.

UPDATE: According to Steuben County Undersheriff Ray Dell, it was the Wayne Fire Dept. Cold Water Response Team that located the missing diver, and Steuben County Dive Team members Doug and Nancy Hamilton who brought Mr. Rhodes to the surface. That is direct contradiction of the report made by State Police Investigator John Karasiewicz and relayed to The Chronicle-Express by State Police Senior Investigator Rick Kemp.

"These are volunteers who train extensively and for no pay. They deserve the credit for what they do." Dell said to The Chronicle-Express via telephone Thursday morning. He did say that troopers were first on the scene by land, but the Steuben County Dive Team, based at the Hammondsport Fire House very near Keuka Lake, was the first Marine Unit to respond. He added that the Yates County Marine Response Team, equipped with side-scan sonar, was prepped and ready to respond if Steuben's team were unsuccessful. Dell can think of no explanation for the State Police to report as they did.

When asked about the conflicting reports, Bath State Police Station Captain Rick Allen replied, "I can say with 100 percent certainty that our team member, Trooper Jim Bailey, was one of the divers in the water who retrieved the victim. There was a member of the Hammondsport or Pulteney Fire Departments there, too, but I can't say who that was." Allen would not comment about the relationship between the State Police and the Steuben County Sheriff's Office.

Dell also reported that according to a witness on the scene, Mr. Rhodes surfaced once, calling for help before he drowned.

UPDATE: Keuka drowning

State Police Public Relations Officer Kern Swoboda from Albany contacted The Chronicle-Express to comment. "I've worked in Steuben County, and relations between the State Police and the Sheriff's office have always been good." He says it is regrettable that information was released prematurely and incompletely. He added that his people really couldn't report the actions of personnel from other agencies, and the same goes for them. "The fact is we all work together."

That sentiment was shared by Hammondsport Fire Dept. Chief Bill Fries (pronounced "Frizz"). His account of events bears out elements of both sides. "One of our divers found the victim, but couldn't raise him because of the (buoyancy) weights." According to Fries, Mr. Rhodes was then raised by two divers, one from Steuben and one from the NY State Police.

Chief Fries good-naturedly tried to diffuse tension, speaking to officials from both sides of the disputed incident. He commented, "If we joined the volunteer fire department for publicity, we're in the wrong business," he said with a chuckle. He concluded by saying, "All these agencies have to work together, especially with all the budget cuts we're getting."