My Turn: Lake Tahoe gives up one of its deadly secrets | SierraSun.com

My Turn: Lake Tahoe gives up one of its deadly secrets

David C. Henley
Special to the Sun

FALLON, Nev. and#8212; I will always remember the extraordinary spectacle that unfolded before my eyes 14 years ago as I stood on the Hyatt Hotel pier at the north shore of Lake Tahoe.

It was July 27, 1997, and I had traveled from Fallon to Incline Village to cover the first annual Lake Tahoe Summit arranged by Sen. Harry Reid that would bring international attention to the escalating environmental threats plaguing the lake, the and#8220;jewel of the Sierra.and#8221;

President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore had arrived the preceding day to serve as the summitand#8217;s inaugural speakers, and they, along with Nevada senators Reid and Dick Bryan, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, Nevada Gov. Bob Miller, California Gov. Pete Wilson and a group of UNR and UC Davis scientists, were scheduled to tour the lake aboard a large steamer about 9 a.m. that Sunday morning.

I had spent the night at the lake and had arrived at the Hyatt about 6 a.m. to receive my press credentials and observe the arrival of the boat that was to carry Clinton and the others on an hour-long tour of Lake Tahoe to give them first-hand exposure of its deteriorating clarity that was caused by the proliferation of single-cell algae.

When the vessel pulled up to the pier, a U.S. Navy bus arrived and disgorged a dozen or so Navy scuba divers clad in black wet suits and face masks who silently entered the water single-file and disappeared beneath the surface as the sun rose on the horizon.

It was an eerie sight, to say the least, and after identifying myself as a newspaperman to a Navy warrant officer directing the operation, I asked him what his men were up to.

and#8220;Theyand#8217;re looking for sea serpents and bodies,and#8221; he laughed.

But a Washoe County deputy sheriff, one of a score of law enforcement officers guarding the pier and hotel, filled me in on the diversand#8217; real mission.

and#8220;Theyand#8217;re inspecting the undersides of the pier, boathouse and shipand#8217;s hull for bombs and other explosives. There have been no threats to the president, but all precautions must be taken,and#8221; he told me.

No bombs were discovered, Clinton and his group set out on their lake tour, I joined other reporters aboard a press boat that followed the presidential party, I covered Clintonand#8217;s speech that afternoon in the hoteland#8217;s ballroom and I returned to Fallon to write my story and develop my photos that appeared the next day in the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.

Since that weekend in 1997, Iand#8217;ve often recalled my dramatic encounter with the Navy divers and, especially, the warrant officerand#8217;s joking remarks about their search for and#8220;sea serpents and bodiesand#8221; in the lake, which, at its lowest depth, descends to 1,645 feet, making it the nationand#8217;s second-deepest lake after Crater Lake in Oregon which plunges to 1,949 feet.

Tales of sea serpents who supposedly live in the deep and frigid lake have proliferated over the years, and they have been discounted as fables by most sensible persons.

The presence of hundreds of preserved bodies lying on the lakeand#8217;s bottom also are legion, and most of them, too, have been debunked, including stories that the lake contains the remains of numerous Chinese laborers who helped build the railroad across Nevada in the 1860s and victims of the Mafia, many of them still wearing pinstriped suits of the 1920s, 30s and 40s, who supposedly are held underwater by concrete blocks attached to their feet.

But despite the dubious veracity of these legends, one of them has now come true. In fact, it was proven true quite recently.

Less than a month ago, 17 years after 44 year-old Donald C. Windecker vanished while scuba diving off Lake Tahoeand#8217;s west shore in California, his body was discovered by divers exploring submerged cliff walls near Rubicon Point.

The divers, using and#8220;mixed gasand#8221; that enables them to descend to about 350 feet without suffering nitrogen narcosis or and#8220;rapture of the depths,and#8221; found the remains of Windecker, a Reno city planner, lying on an underwater shelf 265 feet below the surface.

Windecker, according to a colleague who was diving with him at the time he disappeared, was experiencing difficulty with his equipment and began to sink while attempting to reach the lakeand#8217;s surface. His companion frantically tried to assist Windecker, but he had to surface because he was running out of air.

El Dorado County officials, using a remote-controlled mini-submarine equipped with a robotic claw, retrieved the manand#8217;s body four days after its discovery and found it to be remarkably well-preserved.

and#8220;Weand#8217;ll be able to do a thorough autopsy. Windecker may have died of a heart attack or stroke or just ran out of air,and#8221; said a sheriff department spokesman who reported that Windecker was wearing a wetsuit, weight belt and air tank when found.

Ever since Windecker vanished on July 10, 1994, his friends and co-workers had maintained that his preserved body would be found someday in the 35-degree waters of Lake Tahoe.

Their prediction has now come true. Lake Tahoe has given up one of its deadly secrets.

David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.