Deep Descent: Adventure and Death Diving the Andrea Doria

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9780743400633: Deep Descent: Adventure and Death Diving the Andrea Doria

On a foggy July evening in 1956, the Italian cruise liner Andrea Doria, bound for New York, was struck broadside by another vessel. In eleven hours, she would sink nearly 250 feet to the murky Atlantic Ocean floor. Thanks to a daring rescue operation, only 51 of more than 1,700 people died in the tragedy. But the Andrea Doria is still taking lives.

Considered the Mt. Everest of diving, the Andrea Doria is the ultimate deepwater wreck challenge. Over the years, a small but fanatical group of extreme scuba divers have investigated the Andrea Doria, pushing themselves to the very limits of human endurance to explore her -- and not all have returned. Diver Kevin McMurray takes you inside this elite club with a hard, honest look at those who go deeper, farther, and closer to the edge than others would ever dream.
Deep Descent is the riveting true story of the human spirit overcoming human frailty and of fearsome, mortal risks traded for a hard-core adrenaline rush. Chronicling these adventures in his page-turning narrative and in dozens of dramatic photos, McMurray draws us deeper into the cold heart of the unforgiving sea, giving us a powerful vision of a place to which few will ever have the skills -- or the courage -- to go.

"Sinopsis" puede pertenecer a otra edición de este libro.

About the Author:

Kevin F. McMurray is an award-winning journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, New York magazine, Outside, Yankee, Men's Journal, The Sunday Times (London), Rock and Ice, Cigar Aficionado, and other publications. An avid outdoor adventurer, McMurray is an expert scuba diver and former world record holder for swimming around Manhattan. He lives in Brewster, New York, with his wife and two daughters.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

CHAPTER ONE

It is not death, but dying, which is terrible.

Henry Fielding

Wearing close to two-hundred pounds of scuba gear, Gary Gilligan was anxious to make his ungainly entry into the rolling seas of the Atlantic. The neoprene dry suit and his heavy undergarments had him sweating bullets under the hot July-afternoon sun. Prior to his giant step outward and down from the deck of the dive boat RV Wahoo, Gary glanced around and surveyed his surroundings with only the narrow range of vision that his dive mask afforded him.

Land had long since disappeared over the horizon, and no other vessel was in sight. The glare of the sun reflecting off the glassy seas made him wince behind his faceplate. He of course was aware of the activity around him. Getting into the water is always a major hassle for deep divers, and attendance by crew members and fellow divers prior to entry is a necessity, not a luxury. Still, it was tough for Gary Gilligan to be patient, overburdened as he was with gear, not to mention with anxiety. Gary had to remind himself to be cool: getting all bent out of shape before entering the water was a bad idea, he knew. It had a way of biting you back in the ass.

Gary tried to maintain his balance, but he felt encumbered with all the hardware, encased from head to toe in the suffocating dry suit. It was not easy what with the three-foot swells gently lifting up the fifty-five-foot fiberglass boat, only to drop it back down into the following trough, making the deck of the vessel an unstable platform. The cerulean skies high overhead, Gary noticed, still had contrails vectoring eastward to Europe, left behind by the streaking Concorde whose sonic booms had rocked the boat just minutes earlier.

Then the dorsal and caudal fins of the circling blue sharks and their ominous forms beneath suddenly disappeared. They had descended into the depths, Gary thought, knowing full well that he would catch glimpses of their skittish shadows on his long swim to the bottom. Steadying himself on the gunwale, he was relishing the thought of immersion in the cold, blue-green waters of the Atlantic. Finally he would be on his way down the distance of a seventeen-floor skyscraper to the wreck of the Andrea Doria.

Gary checked to see if his buddy Sally Wahrmann was ready. They gave each other the thumb-to-forefinger salute indicating that everything was okay. Gary pressed his mask tight to his face, snugged his double tanks to his back, and entered the ocean.

With only twenty-five minutes allotted for bottom time, Gary and Sally quickly emptied their bloated dry suits of air and kicked hard for the bow anchor line that led down to the sunken luxury liner. Gary was surprised to see three divers lingering on a line running from the anchor line aft at the fifty-foot mark.

Kicking down past them, Gary gave a quick glance back up. He could see the three men were having difficulties. Just a mere hour ago the three had rigged the two long sets of hoses and breathing regulators that were hooked to a tank of pure oxygen aboard the Wahoo and had secured them to a weighted line amidships at the desired depth of twenty feet. Gary could now see that one of those divers, twenty-seven-year-old John Ormsby, one of the charterers of the trip, had gotten hung up in the traverse line. Another diver, Billy Deans, had come to his aid to untangle him. Gary could see they were handling the situation and continued his descent.

In deep diving it was a radically new practice to use supplemental oxygen in water. Breathing pure oxygen after a dive was always known to be beneficial, but using it underwater had only recently been advocated, by Billy Deans of Key West, Florida. Deans knew it was a quick way to expunge the nitrogen gas that had been absorbed by the blood and soft tissues under the crushing load of the ocean. The tiny nitrogen bubbles released by the rapid reduction of pressure, if not compensated for by a slow ascent and a supply of oxygen, could spread through the body, crippling or even killing the diver. Divers called it getting "bent," but the medical community referred to it as decompression sickness.

Sally Wahrmann never saw the unfolding drama above her. She was focused on the dark abyss beneath her. Only later would she hear the story and think about how it was a tragic foreshadowing of what was to happen just minutes later, more than two-hundred feet beneath the surface deep within the holds of the sunken steel sarcophagus of the Andrea Doria.

No one would ever guess that Sally Wahrmann was a pioneer in the world of deep diving. At thirty-nine, Sally looked more like the accounting professor she actually was in the professional world. Only five foot five and edging precipitously toward two hundred pounds, Sally was one of the most accomplished scuba divers -- male or female -- in the rarefied world of deep-wreck diving. She had logged over sixty dives alone on the Doria.

On July 31, 1985, Sally was again on the Wahoo. She was more excited than usual as several Florida diving luminaries were also aboard.

Spencer Slate from Key Largo had chartered the Wahoo. Slate owned the Atlantis Diver Center in Key Largo, which was a popular tourist destination for divers in the Florida Keys. It had always been a dream of Slate's to dive the Andrea Doria, so he had put the group together to charter the Wahoo. Billy Deans owned Key West Diver, a dive shop and training business. Deans was a trailblazer in deep diving, and his exploits in Florida-water shipwrecks were the stuff of legend. Neal Watson, the owner of Undersea Adventures, which consisted of diving resorts in Florida and the Caribbean, also had the record at the time for the deepest dive on scuba at 437 feet. John Ormsby, Deans's best friend, dive buddy, and instructor at his shop, had the record for free diving, or skin diving, down to 170 feet on just one breath. Rick Frehsee was an internationally acclaimed underwater photographer, whose work had appeared in National Geographic among others. Also in the charter were Dick Masten, a police officer, and Lou Delotto, an airline pilot, both well-known in the Florida dive community. It was a first trip for all of them to the Andrea Doria. For all his deep-water experience, Billy Deans had never dove outside the state of Florida.

The group made the trek up to Montauk at the tip of New York's Long Island, where the Wahoo was to pick them up.

Spencer Slate, who had chartered the boat, wasn't with them. On one of his training dives for the Doria, Slate had taken a minor hit of decompression sickness in 250 feet of water off Key West, and his doctor thought for safety's sake Slate should back out of the deep Andrea Doria dive.

The Florida group was there for one reason: china. Pieces of china, crystal, and silverware with the mark of the Italia steamship company are more precious than Spanish doubloons to wreck divers. The Floridians had discussed the china the day before departure with veteran Doria diver Gary Gentile, who was crewing on the Wahoo. Gentile had already made a trip out to the wreck the week before, and he had his recovered artifacts from the first-class gift shop. Deans remembered the trinkets had stirred up "a fever, a frenzy, a rabidity," among the Florida group. On the way out to the wreck site the only topic of conversation was the Andrea Doria ship plans and how to get some artifacts off her.

Rick Jaszyn, another deep diver with Doria experience, was also crewing aboard the Wahoo. A New Jersey resident, Jaszyn was only twenty-seven years old, but he had logged hundreds of dives on the deep wrecks found in the waters of the North Atlantic. He was the only diver, besides Gary Gentile and Steve Bielenda, who knew the Florida contingent personally. He had made a pilgrimage to Deans's Key West Diver and dove the USS Wilkes-Barre with Deans and Ormsby. He had the highest regard for their diving skills. Jaszyn was amazed when Ormsby made a free dive to the top of the Wilkes-Barre, a depth of 150 feet. But on this Doria trip Jaszyn was alarmed by Ormsby's "gung ho" determination to collect some artifacts on his first visit to the wreck. It was not Ormsby's diving talents he doubted. Jaszyn knew that Ormsby's experience came from the totally different Florida environment. Up north, diving in higher latitudes was an "equipment-intensive" experience, plus visibility and cold water factored in as well. Rick Jaszyn tried to cool Ormsby's jets, but knew he had the "fever."

Having Andrea Doria china in one's collection of wreck artifacts is a testament to one's diving prowess, as close to an Olympic gold medal as a diver can get. However, diving the recumbent luxury liner is outside the realm of recreational diving. Unlike on a recreational dive, on a Doria dive you have to contemplate the very real possibility that you may not get out alive.

The Doria, as veteran wreck divers simply refer to her, lies in 235 feet of frequently storm-tossed waters. From the Wahoo's home port in Captree Boat Basin on New York's Long Island, it was a torturous eighteen-hour trip out to the wreck site. Even from Montauk it was still a ten-hour trip.

"Getting beat up" on the trip out is a rite of passage for Doria divers. It isn't just the mercurial Atlantic that conspires against you. The sleeping quarters aboard the speedy fiberglass Wahoo are laughingly referred to as "spice racks." The Wahoo's bunks are stacked like trays below the decks, and diesel fumes mingle with the odor of dozens of sweating bodies in the claustrophobic space. The smell of fear pervades belowdecks preceding any Doria dive. The common belief is that if you are not scared about doing the dive, you are either lying or stupid. Few get much sleep before the dive, and the fatigue adds to the likelihood of a mishap.

The Andrea Doria is one shipwreck the mainstream diving community prefers to ignore -- and for good reason. Travel magazines and publications like Skin Diver Magazine promote scuba diving as a nice, safe recreational sport. Scuba advertisers -- the equipment manufacturers and Caribbean resorts in particular -- tend to illustrate their ads with curvy, bikini-clad models and smiling families suited up in color-coordinated dive gear. Doria divers in bulky, ugly dry suits, shouldering backbreaking double tanks, bedecked with crowbars, hammers, chisels, goodie bags, and big, powerful underwater lights look like intimidating creatures from another planet. These explorers of the deep also violate the widely accepted maximum depth of diving of 130 feet. Going beyond that limit is a dangerous heresy to the diving industry.

Below 130 feet, the risks to divers with a limited air supply are substantial. Nitrogen narcosis, the "rapture of the deep" as scuba inventor and underwater cinematic chronicler Jacques Cousteau called it, intoxicates divers to varying degrees at those depths, often impairing judgment with fatal results.

Nitrogen routinely makes up almost 80 percent of the air we breathe in, with obviously no ill effects. But when nitrogen is compressed into a steel cylinder and transported down to that depth, it becomes a gaseous anesthetic. In the infancy of scuba, divers used to refer to it as Martini's Law: every fifty feet down was equal to drinking one dry martini on an empty stomach. A diver on the Doria would suffer the effects of four to five martinis.

But narcosis is sneaky for most people because it induces a pleasant euphoric feeling, inability to concentrate, and a short attention span. Being easily distracted can mean big trouble to someone who is down deep under the surface of the ocean. Like people with their liquor, some divers hold their nitrogen better than others. Most Doria divers manage getting "narced" by systematic thinking, taking everything slowly and step by step. A deep diver's ability to operate while narced is his or her badge of courage.

Nitrogen has another insidious effect on the diver; under pressure, nitrogen is dissolved from the lungs into the blood and soft tissues. On a diver's return to the surface he must allow for the nitrogen to slowly migrate back to the lungs, revert to its gaseous state, and then be exhaled. This is why divers make decompression stops. Failing to decompress and returning to the surface too quickly is analogous to opening a well-shaken bottle of soda. Millions of tiny bubbles escape into the blood system and can cause blockages in the heart, brain, and central nervous system, preventing the flow of life-giving oxygen. Getting bent is, in effect, a stroke of cataclysmic proportions.

Decompression illness can also have chemical side effects, which could include blood clotting, formation of fat emboli, activation of platelets and leukocytes, and lactic accumulation. The circulatory system can be impaired, and when blood flow is hampered, cells die and irreversible damage can occur.

According to U.S. navy diving tables, a twenty-minute dive down to 220 feet requires a one-minute stop at forty feet, a three-minute stop at thirty feet, an eleven-minute stop at twenty feet, and a twenty-four minute stop at ten feet?or almost double the time spent on the bottom. This is all done on a limited air supply carried on the diver's back. Running out of air before you can surface is always the foremost worry to a deep diver. Getting bent or drowning when diving the Doria are real possibilities, and precautions must be taken and followed to the letter.

Getting narced and bent are not the only problems that breathing compressed air present. Life-giving oxygen can also be treacherous at extreme depths. Down at two atmospheres (thirty-three feet below the surface), 100 percent oxygen is toxic. In compressed air the oxygen is diluted to about 21 percent. Still, according to Dalton's law of physics, in a mixture of gases, each gas exerts a pressure proportional to the percentage of the total gas that it represents. So at two hundred feet, or seven atmospheres absolute, oxygen approaches the same dangerous toxicity it has at two atmospheres. Simply put, oxygen is needed to support life and cells, but too much of it initiates cell destruction. Oxygen toxicity can convulse a diver, and drownings at deep depths on compressed air are often blamed on oxygen toxicity. Portraying scuba as a potentially dangerous activity is not the face the travel industry wants to put on the sport. Therefore diving the Doria is bad for the lucrative business of scuba diving. Unable to stop it, the industry simply pretends it does not exist. To people like Sally Wahrmann, the appeal of that outlaw tag made diving the Doria all the more exciting.

Sally was crewing on the Wahoo for the fourth year in a row. In exchange for her time in the galley as cook, getting the boat ready for the charter, helping in the tedious job of hooking the grapple to the hull of the wreck, and getting client divers in the water, Sally got a free bunk aboard the boat and all the diving she could squeeze in. The paying clients shelled out $700 for the four-day charter. One of Sally's other jobs was signing in divers, collecting the waivers of risk, and checking certification cards and logbooks -- the onerous task of making sure...

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