Retired DNR divers reflect on Susan Smith case, '96 drownings, and the one thing that helped them cope

Baxley and Morrow were among the men who located Susan Smith's children in Lake John D. Long. (Source: WIS)
Baxley and Morrow were among the men who located Susan Smith's children in Lake John D. Long. (Source: WIS)
In 1996, seven more people died in Lake John D. Long after they visited the site where Susan Smith's children were found dead. (Source: WIS)
In 1996, seven more people died in Lake John D. Long after they visited the site where Susan Smith's children were found dead. (Source: WIS)

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - More than 20 years after two tragedies plagued the small town of Union, those at the center of the cases are thanking a program designed to help first responders cope with traumatic events.

Steve Morrow joined the Department of Natural Resource's Aquatic Investigation and Recovery team in the early 1980's. Its mission is the recovery of bodies of victims of drownings, boating accidents, or anything involving someone being in the water. In addition to the recovery, the dive team helps preserve evidence that may be used by the investigating agency.

Union County, SC is his home and he remembers vividly the day in 1994 when he got a call from then-Sheriff Howard Wells.

"I was in court up in Spartanburg and Sheriff Wells called me and said we were needed in Union," Morrow said. "After talking with him once I got here, he said they had good information a car was in John D. Long Lake."

Tim Baxley, another member of the dive team, said he along with several other divers received a call on Oct. 25, 1994. During the drive to Union, he said they didn't know much.

"We knew we would be looking for a vehicle or a vehicle with bodies in it, or we could even be looking for bodies," he said. "They had some missing people and we're going to start diving different bodies of water in the county to see if we could locate either or."

The search would soon become infamous, as the story of Susan Smith began receiving worldwide attention. Smith claimed she was driving with her two young sons, Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months when a carjacker drove off in the car with her boys still in the backseat.

"We would stretch a rope out and we would go out from the bank about 90 or 100 feet and we swam the bank from one edge of the boat ramp to the other," Baxley said. "We got down to about 18 foot of water at that time and we didn't run into anything, no car or person at the time."

After their initial search turned up nothing, Baxley said the dive team returned to their respective counties and continued on with their daily routines. That was until Baxley received a call from Morrow about a week later.

"The sheriff had gotten a confession from her that the car was in Lake Long," Baxley said. "So we knew it wasn't within 100 feet of the ramp, which normally any time we would have dove for a car before, we wouldn't have thought it would have gotten more than 100 feet out in the water."

Morrow, along with another dive team member, found Smith's car 122 feet from the edge of the lake.

"Another one of the divers and I went out and actually laid hands on the car and determined the bodies were inside," Morrow said. "We wanted to make sure the crime scene was contained inside the vehicle. So we wanted to make sure all the windows were intact and we swam and escorted the vehicle back once we hooked the wrecker cable to it."

Both Morrow and Baxley said emotions were running high the night Smith's car was pulled from the lake with her two young boys still buckled into their car seats in the back seat.

"There were a lot of seasoned law enforcement officers here that night and there were a lot of tears shed," Morrow said.

Following the drownings, Morrow and Baxley said members of the dive team decompressed in various ways.

"We would get together, we'd talk to each other about it, we'd laugh, cut-up and people would see us and then we would start thinking I hope they don't take this the wrong way," Baxley said. "It was just our burning down session, we had no other means to talk to people about these things."

After the recovery of the Smith boys, Morrow went home and spent time with his own son, who was about 4 1/2 years old.

"I hugged my wife, I don't think we spoke and then I got in bed with my son and laid the rest of the night," he said.

As the investigation continued, the dive team assisted in a re-enactment of the car rolling down the boat ramp and into the water. Both men said being a part of it and watching the videos afterward only brought on more emotion.

"You can't help but think about how scared those children were as the water continually comes up, comes up, comes up," Morrow said. "You don't have that uneasiness when it's an accident, but this was entirely intentional."

With the tragedy of the Smith boys finally behind them, both men received another call just two years later. At the time, it almost seemed like déjà vu.

On Aug. 31, 1996, seven people drowned in John D. Long Lake after they came to visit the site where Smith drowned her sons. While parked and looking at the Smith boys' memorial, the parking gear turned to lose and caused the suburban to roll down the boat ramp and into the water. The seven victims included four children and three adults.

Again, Baxley and Morrow were called on for the recovery.

"We dove and the Suburban was offshore and it was upside down," Baxley said. "By the time we were through, we had seven drowning victims. Everywhere from a 3-month-old still in a car seat to three grown adults."

"It was all based on the same initial incident," Morrow said. "They wouldn't have been here if that hadn't happened, there wouldn't have been a monument, there would have been nothing to see."

Following the 1996 incident, the dive team was asked to visit a psychiatric professional. While most members weren't on board with the session, they went anyway.

"It's not the most comfortable thing in the world to do," Baxley said. "Number one is why am I going to see a professional? Is there something wrong with me? Well, no."

Shortly after, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Assistance Program, or SCLEAP, was formed. The program is a partnership between SLED, DNR, The Office of the Adjutant General and the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. The program focuses on numerous workshops and peer groups, allowing affected first responders to talk with their fellow co-workers.

Eric Skidmore, the program manager for SCLEAP, said when it was first formed, there was no other program like it in South Carolina.

"There was no statewide coordinated effort to provide peer support services, chaplain services, referral for clinical assistance and mental health counseling for the state police," he said. "As the program emerged, local law enforcement was added to it through legislation in South Carolina."

"There's a huge brotherhood among all the officers now knowing when you have a tragic event, there's someone out there you can talk to that you work with," Baxley said. "It's easy for officers to sit down and talk with fellow people they work with than it is to sit with a professional they don't know anything about."

Morrow said at first, he didn't think he was having any issues following drownings. However, when asked to talk about it, he said he struggled and would eventually shut down.

"My wife and I had lost an infant prior to this and I was having trouble dealing with the fact that we wanted one and lost it, and she, you know, was just giving them up," Morrow said. "There were some doctors that were able to help me get through that."

Following his breakthrough, Morrow became a peer group counselor, helping fellow first responders get through the stress and trauma associated with the job.

"I think everybody is touched," he said. "Nobody is that hard and callous that they can just deal with it over and over again without having some repercussions."

Today, SCLEAP offers a wide array of services and resources to both state and local agencies. Critical Incident Stress Management Training, Post Critical Incident Seminars, and Sudden Traumatic Loss Seminars are just a few of the workshops offered.

"I think the procedures are there, the opportunities are there, the expertise is certainly there, but having everyone take advantage of it, I think that's the weak link," Morrow said.

Skidmore said over the years, the culture within the law enforcement community to reach out for help continues to shift. Once ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help, he said an increasing number of chiefs, sheriffs, and commanders are requesting the program's services.

"All they have to do is call us," Skidmore said. "Sometimes its the one-on-one assessment of a clinical person, sometimes its a conversation with a chaplain, but sometimes its just a chief or sheriff saying this is an incident of such magnitude that we want to bring in a peer support team."

The peer support team consists of police officers, SLED agents, game wardens, probation agents, members of local police and sheriff's offices. It can also include communications personnel, non-sworn personnel, and spouses of police officers.

"The peer team also consists of mental health professionals and chaplains," Skidmore said.

Since 1997, the program has seen more than 2,000 people go through training. SCLEAP offers nearly 300 people who are considered the "A-team" and can be deployed at any time.

Funds approved by the state legislature have also allowed SCLEAP to purchase an insurance policy that covers every sworn officer in the state to assist with counseling needs that are not covered by their private insurance.

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