Kevin Oelhafen wasn’t thinking about glory as he made his way 120 feet down into the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean 25 years ago. He was thinking about the 230 victims of TWA Flight 800 and their families. He’s still thinking about them today.
“I have been asked about writing my story, but, out of respect for those families, I’m not going to do that. I want to leave those bones where they belong,” he said.
A member of the elite Navy Fleet divers, Kevin famously found one of the black box recorders from the flight that appeared to explode in the air. His partner, Doug Irish, found the other box. The two operated on a team of up to 120 divers in nearly impossible conditions and discovered the boxes just after midnight on one of their first trips down.
“You have no idea the scope of the job,” he said. “We didn’t get anchored there until almost a week after the plane went down. Nothing was pretty. Nothing was easy. It wasn’t easy for anybody. We had to work 12 hours diving, and then had two hours before and two hours after that shift to set up and breakdown. We were putting in those 16-hour days for quite a long time. I was there for the first six or seven weeks.”
The team’s task wasn’t just investigative, it also involved the recovery of 230 bodies.
“The ocean floor was like a junkyard,” Kevin said. “You took a stage down and worked for an hour and then you had to come up and decompress for an hour. So, it was slow work. You’re down there with body bags trying to recover what you can for those families.”
The grim work bonded the teams of divers in ways sometimes only members of the military can understand and, though he’s been retired from the Navy since 2007, Kevin still keeps in close contact with his fellow hardhat divers.
“Those are some of my best friends,” he said. “We’re a tight knit work group. You’re pretty specialized and to go out and have cocktails with those people, you can’t have the same conversations with people who have not worked under those conditions. That’s definitely huge teamwork kind of thing. Rank, race, color doesn’t matter. You’re part of a team and everyone has to do everyone else’s jobs at one time or another.”
Kevin, a graduate of Xavier High School, grew up in and around the water. He and his mother ran the Riverview Country Club swimming program while he was in high school and he also lifeguarded at Erb Park and West High school.
“I was always a fish,” he said. “I wanted to be a hardhat diver in the worst way. My dad was in the Navy, although he couldn’t swim, and my mom was a swim instructor so I knew pretty early on what I wanted to do.”
He joined the Navy just three years after his high school graduation, and served from 1985 to 2007. In one of his most memorable assignments, he worked on a minesweeper in the Persian Gulf in 1988.
“I was the guy that drove the rubber boat with the sonar reflector on it that would mark the actual mines,” he said. “We would drop the buoys and EOD (Explosive ordnance disposal divers) would find the mine and they would attach a timed charge on it and then we would watch it blow up.”
He repaired submarines from 1991 through 1995, work that required both mechanical aptitude and strong lungs.
“We got to do a lot of first time ever repairs and it was cool to be a part of that,” he said.
Now that he is retired from the military, Kevin is working to give back to his community (as though his 22-year naval career didn’t already do that.) He lives on a quiet lake in North Carolina with his wife, Elisabeth Peterson, and teaches swimming lessons through the YMCA. Their grandchildren are already avid swimmers. Ten-year old Jackson, is already SCUBA certified, and “Grandpa’s girl” six-year old Aubrey, “is already a fish and will be SCUBA certified as soon as she reaches 10,” according to Kevin.
He looks back on his career with appreciation for both the people with whom he served and the country they protected.
“People tell me all the time thank you for your services. And I say it’s my pleasure. I mean that,” he said. “I don’t think we’re the same breed of people that work in a cubicle or office. I know these people. The circles get kind of small at that level. I’ll bet there are 100 people I knew or worked with who are no longer with us. I have friends that are 100 disabled whether it be PTSD or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The incidences of ALS are about 20% higher in the military. I’ve lost two friends to that. Sometimes we’ll have dinner at a restaurant and order a margarita that no one is going to drink and then we toast to the guy who isn’t with us anymore.
That’s one of the things that America needs more of is the team thing. We are one. We can do this together. Nothing can stop us.”