KAREN joined the police diving unit in 1996 and says she loves her job despite knowing that she is always likely to find a dead body.
IT WAS a hot summer day and a call had come through – a seven-year-old boy had fallen into a small man-made pond. He was feared drowned.
New recruit PC Karen Gordon was to assist the Marine Unit of the then Central Scotland Police with the recovery of the body.
She said: “It’s the one that affects me most. I didn’t find his body but as I swam under to help my colleague, he just floated towards me and all I could see was the shock of ginger hair.
“I can still, to this day, see his face. It was so tragic. He had drowned in less than six feet of water.”
The incident, shortly after she joined the unit in 1996 as their first female police diver, left Karen wondering if the job she had coveted was right for her.
Voice cracking with emotion, she said: “I did wonder if I had what it takes to do the job. Children are the hardest part of my job. It’s always so sad.”
From the moment she joined the police in 1990, Karen wanted to be a police diver. There were no females in the unit and she was knocked back repeatedly for six years.
Karen, 46, said: “I think my boss at the time was just looking out for me because I was told it wasn’t a job suitable for a woman because it was physically demanding. But I asked every year.
“Finally, in 1996, my application went through. I did an eight-week training course in Grangemouth docks. I was 27 and I’d never dived in my life.”
Nineteen years later and with hundreds of dives under her belt, working on some of the biggest cases in Scottish criminal history, Karen – still the only female in the unit – knows she made the right choice.
She said: “There isn’t much visibility underwater and sometimes you can’t even see your hand in front of your face.
“The first few times I dived, I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ You’re not only trying to get used to the equipment, you’re trying to convince your brain you’re still alive even though you’re underwater.”
Searching underwater is challenging, especially when it involves preserving a crime scene or hunting for evidence.
“We will look for whatever any land police officer is asked to look for but we’re doing it underwater,” Karen said. “This is anything from missing people, discarded property, weapons, anything police can’t get to, we look for it.
“We have to have forensic knowledge and we have to recover evidence without disturbing it and keeping it intact as much as possible.
“When it is people we are recovering, we try to be as respectful as possible while bagging them underwater and preserving any evidence that is possibly around the body.”
No case was as challenging as the Limbs in the Loch murder inquiry in 1999. Karen and her team spent seven weeks diving in Loch Lomond for victim Barry Wallace’s body parts.
She said: “I remember it vividly even though I wasn’t in the water at that time. My colleagues on a training exercise found a black bin bag with a forearm and leg.
“At that point, we didn’t realise the full scale of the horror. By coincidence, Barry Wallace had been reported missing that same day but the name meant nothing to us.
“Tragically the whole country would soon know his name and that of William Beggs, his killer.”
Beggs had cut Barry’s body into eight pieces and dumped his limbs and torso in Loch Lomond. He kept the 18-year-old’s head for two days before throwing it into the sea from the Troon ferry.
Karen said: “Every day, it would get more horrifying. More details would emerge and we would be tasked with trying to find items and weapons the murder team wanted. I recovered some body parts.
“We were all shocked at the nature of the crime.”
Despite the horrors she faces, Karen said: “I love my job. I see it as bringing people back to their families.
“We know when we’re looking for a person we’re looking for a body and for me it’s about getting them home to their loved ones. It’s always hard when we can’t find missing people.
“A few years ago a young lad studying in Stirling had gone missing. Everyone was convinced he was in the River Allan or perhaps had come down the river into the Forth. We dived and searched but couldn’t find him.
“It was sad for the family, you felt that sadness for them. I’d just wish each day we could find him.
“It turned out he wasn’t in the water but in a field. He’d been suffering from hypothermia and had lain down in a field and gone to sleep. We knew we hadn’t missed him but there’s always this doubt in your mind. We try our best and sometimes you’re successful and sometimes you’re not.”
Typically, Karen will dive alone with a dive supervisor on the boat relaying instructions to her.
She said: “It’s difficult to know if you’ve missed anything because of the environment.
“It’s not clean, it’s not still, it’s not light, if the tide comes out and goes in then it’s a fresh search area and we use our hands to dig in silt to search for things at the bottom.
“It can be tough on your arms as well. We carry an extra 56lbs in weight but there is no greater feeling of satisfaction when you find what you’re looking for, it doesn’t matter what it is.”
The job isn’t without hazards. Despite tough health and safety regulations, divers face dozens of dangers every day.
Karen said: “There are risks such as drowning, fall hazards especially if you’re working at a height, polluted water, which is why our personal hygiene is hugely important.
“We can be swimming into anything. Canals especially are foul and there are disease risks which can be fatal. Even water that looks clean, you can bet there is something in it.
“We can get too cold or suffer heat exhaustion when it’s too warm. We think about these things every day.”
She added: “When Peter Tobin’s house was searched in Bathgate during the Vicky Hamilton murder inquiry, my team were asked to search the sewers close to his home.
“Her body hadn’t been found so we were down there every day looking for evidence he may have dumped inside.
“It was small and cramped and we spent several days down there looking. Nothing was found and Vicky’s body was later found in England. You can’t be claustrophobic, that’s for sure.”
The job does have lighter moments and Karen recalled one episode on a refresher course in Northumberland.
She said: “We were diving in the Tyne. It is black inside there. You can’t see your hand.
“I was searching for a weight so you have to fumble about due to the lack of visibility. I reached out, touched something and it moved.
“Your mind can go crazy sometimes thinking it’s somebody coming to get me and it was a harmless crab. You don’t want to put your hand out again.
“Another time I was doing a night dive in Loch Lomond and visibility was poor. You couldn’t see anything and I turned around and these fish were looking at me right next to my face. That was quite frightening at the time but you just have to carry on.”
Away from her job, Karen, who is married to a fellow police officer, enjoys running and keeps fit at the gym and by exercising her two dogs.
She said: “I have to pass a medical every two years. I could retire in five years but I don’t think I want to. I once worked as a land search officer and felt physically sick at not being able to dive.
“I’m proud of my job and I know we provide a valuable service to the public. I’d love to see more women come into my unit.
“It’s a physical, demanding job but it brings so much satisfaction, too.”