Matt Jenkins is 44 and a man of many talents, one could say.
He could handle a Bobcat and backfill foundations of a home when he was 8. At 15 he became part of the Knox County Rescue (KCR) as a Junior Squad member, and his long hair then earned him the nickname “Hippy.” When he was a student at the University of Tennessee he worked as an emergency room technician at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital on the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift, five nights a week, thinking maybe one day he’d be a physician’s assistant.
Today he and his father are partners who build and rebuild custom homes in Knoxville as Gerald Jenkins Construction Inc. But when his pager goes off, he’s one of eight divers who go underwater to find drowning victims for KCR. He’s been doing this for 26 years.
Jenkins and his father co-own the company, but they don’t sit in offices or trucks directing the work. They work. Hammering. Measuring. Installing. Doing whatever it takes. “We’re worker bees,” Jenkins. “On our jobs, we are there working like our crew and we’re hands-on.”
This rescue squad work is also a family affair. He met his wife of 19 years, Janet Beets, at KCR headquarters on Chilhowee Drive in East Knoxville. It was a December day in 1996 and they were packing baskets for the Empty Stocking Fund to deliver that day. Janet’s father, Doug, was then and still is a diver for the squad as was her uncle, Donald. They were both there that day, too. They noticed one another.
After three years of dating, Matt and Janet married on Dec. 16, 2000. They have two adopted children, Jacob and Mary. Jacob reports to the U.S. Marine Corps boot camp on Oct. 20. Mary is in nursing school. Matt and Janet first fostered and then adopted the children at age 3.
Lest you wonder, yes, Janet is also a diver and dove with the KCR team for seven years, sometimes with her husband, sometimes not. Today, she is the senior director of the programs that the Helen Ross McNabb Center contracts with through the Department of Children’s Services. She oversees the programs that serve children in residential placements, foster care and adoption, supervised visitation and emergency shelter placements. She also directs youth homeless services and juvenile justice cases.
Back to the diving and Matt.
To do this work at KCR, he has a boatload of certifications: Cave Rescue 1, Confined Space Rescue, Vehicle Rescue, Swift Water Rescue 1 and 2, Dive Rescue 1 and 2, Tennessee Certified EMR, Medical Dive, Public Safety Scuba Instructor, and EVOC (Emergency Vehicle Operators Course).
He has recovered bodies from the Tennessee River and its coves, from quarries, lakes and ponds since joining the dive team in 1993.
There have been suicides, airplane crashes, and boat and car accidents. “I’ve never pulled anyone off the bottom with a life jacket on,” he says.
The waters of the Tennessee River are around 32 to 35 degrees in the winter. As soon as Jenkins goes underwater, it’s complete darkness. He searches with his hands. Same in the lakes.
Quarries, he says, usually have clear water but are the most dangerous because of the depth and the clear water. “You can be down 100 feet and see a body 40 feet below you. The temptation is there and the body looks closer than 40 feet, but if you go down those extra 40 feet you can die,” he explains. His air tanks allow him to dive for 48 minutes per dive and he can only go down 100 feet. The Blount Avenue quarry is 230 feet deep. The Emerald Mine quarry, which is closed to the public, is some 400 feet deep.
KCR has five rescue boats: A 26-foot assault boat that can carry stretchers and four-wheelers as needed and is housed at Concord Marina; two 16-foot Rescue 1 boats; and two 16-foot inflatable raft boats.
The assault boat came to the KCR via a $120,000 grant from an anonymous foundation that Jenkins managed to obtain. “That’s a feather in my cap,” he said. “Someone told me to ask for what we needed and I submitted a grant for the boat and we got it. Otherwise, we could never have afforded that boat.”
To help locate bodies the squad also uses a remote control vehicle that they operate from the boat, side-scan sonar units and sophisticated fish finders. “The most important and most helpful thing is having an eyewitness who saw the person go under,” Jenkins said. “If we don’t have an eyewitness, we have to scan and search a much bigger area.”
He has plenty of stories from his experiences. Here are a few he shared.
They dive in the Tennessee River downtown in the winter, mostly in December, when people jump from the Gay Street and Henley bridges. Suicides. The water is about 35 feet deep. He’s seen a Buick in the river, safes, guns, construction material debris, river garbage, lots of logs, fish and big snapping turtles. “When people jump in the winter they won’t survive. The water is freezing, and there is zero visibility and hitting that water is like hitting a brick wall.”
Diving to recover bodies in an airplane crash is the most dangerous of dives, he says. “Until you’ve seen a plane broken up you don’t realize how much wiring they have in them and you can get tangled up in it real fast if you’re not careful, so you have to have your cutters with you; the jet fuel can be dangerous, too.”
Keep in mind it’s dark, they have no lights and are doing everything by feel underwater. “I think being on the dive team is the riskiest thing we do at the squad,” he says. “You are solely by yourself, it’s dark, you are cold, plus the river currents and the variables. It can play with your mind down there. All you can see are your air bubbles. You have to stay focused on finding the bodies.”
One interesting tidbit he shared. A body underwater, when illuminated by a flashlight, glows white.
Jenkins tells us a story from 20 years ago that has become part of the squad’s lore.
“It was in February and it was cold. We had a jumper off the Henley Bridge and I was the only diver there. I was running my patterns and feeling my way along and it was cold. All of a sudden I reached out and felt something and grabbed on to an arm. I found him, I thought. Then a hand grabs my arm back and I’m scared to death. What is going on? It wouldn’t let go and we started wrestling, really wrestling, and finally, the hand took my hand and forced it to feel a mask and a face. We had put another diver in the water and I didn’t know he was down there. But he knew I was. Lordy. We still laugh about it today,” he says.
As fate would have it, the other diver was his future father-in-law, Doug Beets, and his future wife, Janet, was in the boat above helping with the tether ropes as they “fought” down below.
The sad moments happen as well. His saddest was recovering a small child. “I grabbed what I thought was a small tree limb or stick and pulled it across my face and I saw hair,” he recalled. “I was used to adult arms and this kid’s arm was small. I just cradled him as I slowly brought him up. It really got to me.”
Why does a man who lives a hard-working and comfortable life do this work for Knox County Rescue? “Everyone has talents and I have one for diving. Doing this helps families get some closure, to have their loved ones for a funeral. I like to think we are helping them in a good way, even though it is tough and sad times for them. I enjoy helping people and I enjoy working for the community as a volunteer.”
KCR Deputy Chief John Whited, without hearing Jenkins’ comments, told us: “Matt Jenkins, commonly referred to as ‘Hippy,’ has spent a lifetime of service to Knox County. He always has what’s best for the community at heart. Matt has consistently served in many leadership roles and will continue to do so as called upon.”
Having many talents and love for one’s community is a powerful combination.
Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday on KnoxTNToday, and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional we need to feature, please email Tom King or call him at (865) 659-3562.