OPELIKA, AL (WTVM) - Three Opelika firefighters are home safe with their families after getting separated from their boat when their scuba dive went horribly wrong off the coast of Pensacola.
We spoke with the men about their 12-hour ordeal in the ocean where they encountered 10 foot tall waves, dehydration, hypothermia, and the fear of shark bites.
Opelika Fire Department Lieutenant Bryan Densel has spent 15 years of his life dedicated to rescuing strangers. However, this weekend Densel and two friends, who are all experienced divers, were the ones who needed saving.
He says was supposed to be a quick, 10-minute dive, but a bad storm turned it into a 12 hour rescue mission
"It was definitely a life changing experience. It made me appreciate a lot of things," Densel said. "Until you are that guy, you can't know what it's like to have somebody reach out their hand and you are just so thankful to see them."
On Saturday, Densel, firefighter Michael Bass and former firefighter Jeff Thompson did a quick dive near a favorite fishing spot 13 miles off the coast. A storm was in the distance, but they were only supposed to be in the water for 10 minutes.
"We went down the anchor rope, we got disoriented and away from the anchor rope. We didn't go far but the water clouded up so fast," he
When the divers surfaced, the current had carried them 300 yards from their boat. After several hours of hard swimming, the three men couldn't overcome the current and get back to their vessel.
So they banded together and began praying. They focused on their families and not the sharks.
"I felt a few bumps on my tank and I got nudged a few times, but like I said mentally the two things we were thinking about were our families
and we also focused on not thinking about sharks," he said.
Bryan, Michael and Jeff swam and drifted for about 10 hours, their gear kept them afloat, through two horrible thunderstorms.
"The waves were 10 feet high, salt water just coming up your nostrils, it was awful," Densel said. "We had accepted we were going to die. But, we didn't want to quit. If we were going to die it was going to be while we were trying to survive."
When the men didn't return, Jeff's wife called firefighter Chris Rodgers, then the Coast Guard around 9 p.m. Thankfully, Rogers knew their location because Bryan had mentioned it to him before their trip.
"The greatest feeling of my life is when that Coast Guard plane flew over and dropped flares right on us," Densel said.
At 12:20 Sunday morning, the coast guard pulled all three men out of the water. They were dehydrated, hypothermic, covered in jellyfish stings, but they were alive... and forever grateful to God, the U.S. Coast guard and their families who all played a role in their survival.
"I'm tired today, extremely sunburn, exhausted and sore, but I got up and came to work, cause I kept thinking somebody here may need us,"
Densel says it was important for them to share their story to caution others about diving. They are all experts in scuba safety, but say they still got in trouble. Thankfully their survival instincts kicked in, family and friends knew where they were diving and God took care of the rest.