“Here they come!” Doug Bishop bellowed to those of us standing at the river’s edge.
Bishop is the towing expert with Adventures with Purpose, a team of independent divers that tours the country searching for missing people in America’s rivers and lakes. The day before, on what was supposed to be their last day in Nashville, Tennessee, they found a submerged car in the Cumberland River. The car belonged to Bill Simmons, a local man who had vanished over seven months earlier, in June 2020.
Bishop is normally soft-spoken, and his shout startled us onlookers out of our own thoughts and focused our anticipation like the whistle of a firework before it explodes in the air. It had been a long wait; the team had searched unsuccessfully for Simmons in the fall of 2020 and had just spent several days braving the frigid late January waters searching for Simmons again, this time at different points along the Cumberland. Now they were moments away from raising the car and learning whether he was inside.
I stood with volunteers and other members of the press along the concrete embankment and gripped the chain-link fence in front of me. I scanned the muddy water, waiting for bright orange lift bags to burst to the surface, pulling the car off the riverbed.
Nothing happened. The river remained unchanged.
“What Type of Good Could We Do?”
The team has plenty of experience towing vehicles out of water. Jared Leisek, who started out filming his dives to remove trash from Oregon’s waters, founded Adventures with Purpose in July 2018. When he discovered his first sunken vehicle the following spring, Leisek found Bishop, operations manager at Elite Towing in Oregon, who agreed to tow the car out for free. Sam Ginn, who had his own YouTube channel documenting his diving adventures with his son, became a key volunteer with the group later that year.
Adventures with Purpose has since removed over 50 vehicles from waters across the country.
While the group still cleans up waterways by removing submerged vehicles—on this trip to Nashville, they hauled out 17.5 in three days—they now prefer to focus on finding lost loved ones and giving families answers. This shift was the result of discovering a body in a sunken car they recovered in Portland, Oregon last year. The man inside had been missing for 12 years.
“If this is an accidental finding,” Leisek remembers thinking, “what type of good could we do if we start focusing on trying to … solve these cold cases?”
By the time they found Simmons’ car in the Cumberland River this January they had worked with other volunteers to solve four cold cases. As of this writing, they say they have solved seven.
Connecting with Grieving Families
Adventures with Purpose has a knack for attracting support. Volunteers, both divers and non-divers, leave their jobs and lives and come from all over the country to join them wherever they are searching. With each day, a new assortment of volunteers appears. In Nashville, the team was assisted by fans from New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Illinois. Local agencies even pitched in: After an officer with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, a fan himself, learned the team was coming to Nashville he joined them on scene to assist. The Nashville Fire Department filled up dive tanks with their own air truck to equip the team.
Their support extends to the virtual world too. Over one million people subscribe to their YouTube channel, and this international fanbase is essential to the team’s mission. Leisek now refers to their work as “open-source investigations,” acknowledging the vital assistance of viewers. This support contributes to covering the team’s expenses. Adventures with Purpose earns money based on YouTube and Facebook views, and this income—along with donations and sponsorships—allows them to work without charging the families of missing persons. In this way, they fill in a gap: Law enforcement agencies often don’t have the resources or personnel needed for these operations, and the cost, tens of thousands of dollars per trip, is prohibitive to most families.
But why is Adventures with Purpose so popular? Bishop has a theory. “There’s so much negativity in the world, and people forget: There’s a lot of good in this world,” he says. “A lot of good. It’s like a magnet—you do good, you attract good. And that’s really what this is.”
It’s also possible that Adventures with Purpose has resonated on a more intimate level with fans. Anguish and loss have such a central role in their work that viewers’ natural empathy makes self-reflection inevitable, and this connects fans with grieving families. The team feels this empathy firsthand as they work with families of missing persons.
“If I wasn’t a diver and I lost a loved one, I would want somebody to be able to come and search for me,” says Ginn.
As for Bishop, he’s come to understand how this experience can devastate a family. “I just don’t think I would ever be the same if something happened to a sibling of mine, my wife, or one of my daughters,” he says. “I just would never be the same. I consider myself to be a very strong person, but just even thinking about it … it would just be ... a true broken heart, you know? A true broken heart.”
Another Case Closed
Back on the banks of the Cumberland River, we were moments away from learning whether Simmons’ family would have closure. Earlier, Ginn and Leisek had wrapped a net around the car on the riverbed and rolled it onto its wheels by partially inflating lift bags underwater. They were now ready to fully inflate the bags and lift the car out of the river’s sticky mud.
I expected the huge bags to burst through the river’s surface, spraying water like sparks heralding the end of this tragic mystery. Instead, when they finally appeared they only peeked through. The opaque water did not even reveal the vehicle’s outline. Once the team released the tether connecting the car to the shore, the car drifted in the current toward the river’s edge below the embankment. Our shadows shrouded the bags and vehicle as they drifted toward us.
Leisek tied the vehicle to a boat, and the team towed it to the boat ramp. The onlookers followed, escorting the vehicle in silence and taking up posts on the high edge of the parking lot, overlooking the tow truck that waited on the ramp. As the boat approached, Ginn waded up to the driver’s side of the vehicle. He gave a silent nod, his expression unchanged. No one moved. Only the tow truck driver acknowledged Ginn’s gesture. He pulled a black tarp from his truck, and the team helped him unfurl it over the vehicle.
Relief swept over me, followed by pangs of guilt. Was it wrong to be relieved that Simmons was in the car? I thought back to an earlier discussion with Bishop when he had described feeling competing emotions after a recovery.
“Oh my God, this is horrible,” he remembers thinking, “but on the flip side of that, in a weird way, [it’s] amazing because there’s a lot of emotional trauma that gets solved [when] someone has answers where they never had answers.
“And that’s very powerful,” he adds. “Very powerful.”
Maggie Gigandet is a Nashville-based freelance writer focusing on wildlife and the outdoors. An avid hiker, she runs a blog on the Tennessee State Parks on her website at maggiegigandet.com.
Image By Maggie Gigandet