When those who drown cannot be found, they call Bruce’s Legacy

A conversation with underwater search and recovery expert Keith Cormican, founder of Bruce’s Legacy

On January 1, 2016, Ryan Osberg and Bob Glennon went fishing on Pyramid Lake but did not return. Officials found their vehicle by the shore, and the pair were presumed to have drowned. 

Regional authorities could not find the bodies, so the families summoned Bruce’s Legacy from Black River Falls, Wisconsin.

Keith Cormican and his brother Bruce became certified scuba divers in 1990. The Cormican brothers wanted to add an underwater search and recovery team to the local fire department, but in 1995, when Bruce was searching for a man lost in a swollen creek, he was swept away and drowned.

“I always truly believed that the accident occurred because they didn’t have the proper training,” Keith Cormican said by phone. “They didn’t understand the hydraulics of a swollen river or swollen creek like that, so the following year is when I changed gears of my life and opened up a dive shop. We have a very nice little diving lake here in our county.”

In 1996, Cormican opened Wazee Sports Center. Wazee Lake is 355 feet deep and used to be an iron mine. The lake is the deepest inland lake in the State of Wisconsin and noted for its clarity.

Cormican launched the nonprofit Bruce’s Legacy in 2013 with $70,000 of his own money. By 2016 and the drowning of the 2 fishermen on Pyramid Lake, Cormican and Bruce’s Legacy had established a reputation as a dogged and intuitive searcher who brought advanced technology like sonar and Remotely Operated Vehicles to the search for missing people.

Last week, Cormican found the remains of a drowning victim on Lake Tahoe at nearly 1,600 feet below the surface and has worked to find some 100 lost drowning victims over time. On this edition of the Wild Hare we chat with Keith Cormican about Bruce’s Legacy.

(See music and sound design credits below the podcast transcript)

In 2016, after tense negotiations with the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Cormican was allowed to search for the missing fishermen. Using sonar, he located both bodies in 130 feet of water.

According to Cormican, the Washoe County Sheriff’s Department had a policy that prevented their deputies from diving deeper than 90 feet. Cormican is certified to dive to 500 feet and had his tactical diving gear, so county officials and tribal authorities allowed him to make the recovery dive with law enforcement divers in attendance.

In the days before sonar, Cormican said he would have to swim in a grid pattern at varying depths searching for a victim. But in Pyramid Lake, with the benefit of sonar, he knew the locations of the missing men.

With this knowledge, the dive was a highly controlled and targeted event. The team ran a rope within 8 feet of the victims. They used a collapsible metal dog cage to hold a weight at the bottom and another dog cage to hold a buoy on the surface. They tied a rope between the cages.

So what’s it like 130 deep in Pyramid Lake?

“It’s dark,” Cormican said by phone. “You know, it’s quite dark down there, I mean the visibility, I think we had probably a 10 feet of visibility. And what we did there on that case is when we located the victim, we have these metal collapsible type dog cages. What we do is we put those in the water with a line going to the surface and a float … now we know where the cage is. We know where the victim is. So we want to get it 8 maybe less than 10 feet away from the victim. 

“So then when I come down the line … I follow the line down to the cage and then before we do the service, we know how far he is away because I can always measure that. And then what I do is I just went ahead and had a lift bag with me and a strap and I just went up underneath their arms and put the lift bag on and inflated air into the lift bags, and and they head for the surface.”

Cormican’s trip to 130 feet took just a few minutes, but to prevent decompression sickness or the bends, Cormican took nearly an hour to get back to the surface while breathing a shifting mixture of 3 different gasses.

Bob Glennon was recovered on February 6, and Ryan Osberg was recovered the following day.

Interacting with family members desperate to find a loved one is never easy, says Cormican. Bruce’s Legacy is a last resort for emergency officials who cannot find a missing person and is often seen as the fixer who will find lost relatives. The emotional pressure to find the missing is enormous.

“It is extremely difficult, talking with parents when they’re looking for their son or their son’s out in the lake. And usually when we come in, it’s always after several departments have worked it, done everything they can. They (family members) hear about us and they get, they sometimes, they’ll get, you know, a surge of hope again. And that puts more pressure on us, no doubt, but that’s certainly one of our driving forces that drives me I mean … I want to be able to be successful, as much as they want me to.”

When recovering corpses, success is always tempered with tragedy.

“When we’re successful, it’s always a bittersweet moment to be successful. But I always say that the hardest ones are the ones that we are not successful in. And at the end of the search, when we finally determine, when the end is there … is to have to tell the family members that we just can’t find them. I find that the hardest to deal with.

“We’re dealing with these families, certainly at the darkest moments in their lives. And like the case just this last week in Tahoe, we were successful and yes, it was what we worked for, but when you ask about what it’s like for all these families, and certainly the worst ones are the ones that we are unsuccessful in finding.”

Cormican collaborates with emergency rescue teams and is grateful for the information and help they share on cases, but he has an aversion for second and third hand information and likes to work each case from the ground up.

“When I come in and other departments have worked it … my method is …  they always want to share their information with me and that’s always great. I’m interested in the information, but I’m you know … I am very interested in information of course, but I’m not interested in where they searched and … I work each case, I work with whatever I’ve got … just because another department has searched the area or an area doesn’t mean that I won’t search it. I found probably the majority of the victims are in the areas that others have said they’ve searched.”

In 2016, the Bruce’s Legacy boat searched for and recovered 2 lost lost fishermen in Pyramid Lake, Nevada – photo: Bruce’s Legacy

On August 10 of this year, Ryan Normoyle of Closter, New Jersey rented a boat and set out on Lake Tahoe by himself and did not return. Several agencies searched for Normoyle to no avail, and ultimately the family reached out to Bruce’s Legacy.

The South Lake Tahoe Police Department was the lead agency on the investigation. It just so happened that Ryan Normoyle accepted Google’s location tracking on his cell phone. Otherwise, according to Cormican, he would have had no idea where to begin looking.

“One of the departments put a lot of time and effort into it (the search for Normoyle) and they sent me the information once they found out I was coming. And I wouldn’t even look at their information until I worked all the the information myself and then I came up with an area of search, and it just happened to be on the the outside edge of where theirs were. 

“And this gentleman ended up even just a little bit north of that even, outside their search and just a little bit north of where I wanted to start searching. So it’s just an example of everybody works different things in different ways. And I don’t try to let myself be influenced by their input.”

Ryan Normoyle’s body was over 1,500 feet deep. Cormican had never worked at that depth, and having 1,700 feet of cable in the water with a 60 pound Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) at the end of it made for many technical challenges and the need to improvise. Cormican had 4 days to find and recover Ryan Normoyle’s body.

“The challenge is the environments, the environment down there is pretty harsh on the equipment, such as Lake Tahoe at that depth … I’d never worked that depth before. And, boy, it didn’t take but the second day for that to take a toll on us.

“And we found him on the second day doing a … when I sit back and I was just talking to one of my colleagues this morning. He called me about it, and we were talking about it, because he knows me and he knew I was going on this one.

“And when he read about it … we talked about it, and we … I just wasn’t ready, I just couldn’t give up. On the second day, we had electrical problems and part of the system was working. And we just adapted. 

“Instead of flying that thing around on its own, we just pulled it with the boat. And that’s just crazy for even to be able to come up with an idea of trying that and after a few hours of pulling the ROV along the bottom with a boat. That’s how we found Ryan. 

“Most people would have just packed up and went into shore and tried to fix the issue. But we just … because we had good weather that day. It was flat calm, and I just couldn’t see being on shore … we thought we would just wing it, try it, and lo and behold, we were able to find ’em that way.”

For the recent Lake Tahoe recovery, Cormican had a third of a mile of cable and a 60 pound ROV in the water. On dry land that all weighs around 400 pounds. But stretched out to 1,600 feet below the surface, the unwieldy weight is magnified. Washoe County Sheriff’s deputies and South Lake Tahoe Police officers were onboard to reel in the ROV, and ultimately Ryan Normoyle’s body, by hand.

Helping families and law enforcement has its rewards for Cormican, but maybe more than anything, he relishes the challenges of constant problem solving.

“So we did some improvising … we … it’s kind of the thing that I really do enjoy about this business, this is part of what I do is it is always challenging. The different things we run into is you’ve got to … if you’re doing things by the book, you’re going to go home early and you’re going to go home without success. But we have to, we have to improvise, and we had constantly improvise in that four day stretch (on Lake Tahoe). And because we improvised and we tried different things, we finally were able to get Ryan (Normoyle) up.”

Many agencies own underwater search equipment, but the need for underwater recovery is rare. Demand for Bruce’s Legacy arises because search and rescue teams struggle to stay current in the use of the equipment.

“That’s the problem with most of these agencies is they’re not using it enough to get familiar with it. They’ll get certain guys on the department trained on it and then next thing you know, they’re off in a different part of the department or they switch jobs or whatever it is, and they have to start over again.

“This type of equipment takes a lot of knowledge. You got to put hands on. I mean, I didn’t go to college for this stuff. I never went to college. I didn’t come out of the military with with this type of knowledge. I just learned it because I want to … I just had the desire to do it. 

“And I’ve got thousands of hours behind the sonar now because I work all these cases … I have a hard time saying no, and I go do them even if there’s, the chances are very slim. I just go do it because you never know and I put time in … and it’s that kind of …. what I just really stress … it’s not just the training is what it takes, it takes time behind the equipment to learn and be able to identify these items underwater.”

But Bruce’s Legacy has a problem – money. The pandemic has spelled a drop off in donations. Remotely operated vehicles and towing a boat and gear from Wisconsin to northern Nevada is cash-intensive.

Bruce’s Legacy is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and relies almost exclusively on donations to operate. Cormican says some of the wealthiest people take his services for granted.

“Because of this COVID … we depend on donations, and donations are very slim, coming of course this year, but ironically, and I’m gonna say it because that’s the way I am, but you know, California people are pretty freakin’ tight on the money. We don’t get much for donations out of California with all the work I’ve done out of California.

“I mean in 2017 I recovered six drowning victims. I drive by multimillion dollar homes. I watch hundreds of thousands of dollar boats go by me all day long, and these frickin’ people are tighter than a bad end out there man. They don’t, they don’t donate anything. So take that for whatever it’s worth. And that’s what I would say is the important part, if we don’t have funding we won’t last.”

The work of grinding through problems and emotionally-charged situations must have an impact. Does the work take an emotional toll?

“Yeah, it definitely does. I mean I’ve … I’ve done this for … as I said before, I’ve been doing the public safety stuff for about 30 years. And I dive … well it aint as much as I used to, but I would dive, I used to average 300 dives a year with all the classes I teach. And a lot of those dives are well below 100 feet. 

“We have a lake that’s actually 350 feet deep just four miles from me that we use for training.  It’s an old quarry that is crystal clear. So that’s how I’ve been able to survive all these years up this way, because we … I used to do pretty much the majority of the technical training up here. And so I did a lot of deep dives … and body recoveries … again, I’ve just been doing it for a long time and it’s just something that you just get immune to I guess after a while.”

Music credits as reported to the Public Radio Exchange, in order of appearance  

All ambient recordings – Brian Bahouth 

Song: No Contact Contact
Artist: Cluthchy Hopkins
Album: Music is my Medicine
Label: Ubiquity Records
Date: 2009
Duration: 2:17  

Song: Intro
Artist: Sirs
Album: Cry in Silence EP 2010
Label: Mighty Atom
Date: 2004
Duration: 1:47  

Song: JT Goldfish
Artist: Cluthchy Hopkins
Album: The Storyteller
Label: Ubiquity
Date: 2010
Duration:  3:22  

Song: Heavy Hands
Artist: Cluthchy Hopkins
Album: Music is my Medicine
Label: Ubiquity Records
Date: 2009
Duration: 1:48  

Song: Shadowfish
Artist: Cluthchy Hopkins
Album: Music is my Medicine
Label: Ubiquity Records
Date: 2009
Duration: 1:52  

Song: Dotys Leslie
Artist: Cluthchy Hopkins
Album: Music is my Medicine
Label: Ubiquity Records
Date: 2009
Duration: 2:01  

Song: The Old Spot
Artist: Cluthchy Hopkins
Album: Music is my Medicine
Label: Ubiquity Records
Date: 2009
Duration: 1:48 


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