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Submerged Sedan Pulled From Lake Lillinonah



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On the morning of Sunday, August 19, while performing a routine monthly training exercise to keep their scuba diving skills sharp, members of the volunteer Newtown Underwater Search And Rescue (NUSAR) encountered a large submerged object partially buried in the mucky lake bed of Lake Lillinonah.

NUSAR Assistant Chief Dr Michael Cassetta, who was NUSAR’s incident commander, explained that NUSAR divers were using a side-scan sonar unit on their boat to sonically inspect the lake bed on the training drill. While navigating in a lake cove near Alberts Hill Road at about 9:45 am, the sonar unit detected a large object positioned on the lake bottom in about 25 feet of water, he said.

To confirm what had been displayed on the sonar unit, the divers entered the water and found that a large silver-gray Mercedes-Benz sedan was stuck upside down on the lake bottom, with the cabin of the inverted auto lodged in the muck and the lower section of the vehicle, including its tires, sticking up into the water. The section of the sedan that had been exposed to lake water has become blackened by invasive zebra mussels.

Officials estimate that the Mercedes had been on the lake bottom for a long time, possibly a decade or much longer. The auto has styling from the early 2000s.

Police Chief James Viadero said August 21 that the vehicle may have been stolen, and thus town police are probing any criminal aspects of the situation. Police are seeking details on the auto’s history from the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), he said. Because the Mercedes had been off the road for so many years, the DMV did not have information on the auto readily available, he added.

NUSAR contacted police at 11:46 am on August 19, informing them that the vehicle had been found on the lake bed about 40 feet from shore. Although FirstLight, the electric utility company that owns the lake, drops the lake’s water level each fall to allow lakeside maintenance projects to be done, the water does not drop low enough to expose all submerged objects, such as the Mercedes.

NUSAR divers encountered very low water visibility of about six inches while diving to prepare the vehicle to be raised from the bottom, Dr Cassetta commented. Such diving is hazardous, with divers using their sense of touch to navigate underwater. During extended hot weather, the lake experiences algal blooming, which colors its waters with a vivid green hue.

NUSAR divers attached large floatation bladders to the auto, which were then filled with compressed air to float the car up to the lake’s surface. Because much of the vehicle was buried in muck, it took great effort to free the auto, which was mired in the lake bed, Dr Cassetta said. Six NUSAR members were at the scene, four of whom were diving.

As the vehicle was being moved, some automotive fluids escaped into the lake’s waters. At 2:50 pm, Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company members received a call for service to contain those spilled fluids.

Andrew Ryan, Sandy Hook’s second assistant chief, was the fire company’s incident commander. Volunteer firefighters placed floating booms on the lake’s surface to contain the spilled automotive fluids. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) sent a spill inspector to the scene to check for environmental problems. The inspector deemed the auto recovery operation safe, Assistant Chief Ryan said. About 15 firefighters went on the call.

To manage the complicated task of pulling the Mercedes up from the lake bed, Modzelewski’s Towing and Recovery Inc had been called to the scene. The firm used specialized equipment to extract the auto from the mucky lake bed and cart it away.

“It was a very difficult (vehicle) recovery... a very strange situation,” Dr Cassetta said.

Of the incident, Assistant Chief Ryan remarked, “It’s definitely strange.”

Chief Viadero said that when considering that auto thieves at times hide stolen vehicles by driving them into bodies of water, Lake Lillinonah might hold other submerged vehicles yet to be discovered.

A complex effort raised this large Mercedes-Benz sedan from Lake Lillinonah on Sunday, August 19. Officials believe the auto may have been underwater for more than a decade before being discovered during a routine training drill by Newtown Underwater Search and Rescue (NUSAR). — photo courtesy NUSAR
A wrecker operator handles a line and guides the course of a sedan that had just been plucked off the lake bed of Lake Lillinonah. — photo courtesy Sandy Hook Fire & Rescue
Emergency services staffers watch from the shore of Lake Lillinonah as a large sedan is recovered after having long been submerged on the lake bed. — photo courtesy Sandy Hook Fire & Rescue
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