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Dying in the deep

Published July 27, 2003


Deep Sea Diving, China Fever, and the Wreck of the Andrea Doria

By Joe Haberstroh

The Lyons Press, $23.95, 256 pp


When the glamorous Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria collided with a ship off the coast of Long Island and sank on July 25, 1956, authorities were amazed at the minimal loss of life.

Unlike the massive death toll associated with the sinkings of passenger ships such as the Titanic and Lusitania, just 51 of the vessel's 1,709 passengers were lost.

But the Doria, as she is called in the close-knit world of "technical" scuba divers, would continue to claim lives long after the survivors of that ill-fated night were whisked to safety.

Over the years, 12 scuba divers have died exploring the rusting hulk of what was once known as the Grande Dame of the Sea. In his recent book, Fatal Depth, Joe Haberstroh examines the mystique surrounding scuba diving's Mount Everest, focusing closely on the summers of 1998-99, when five of those deaths occur.

The Andrea Doria was off limits to recreational divers for decades because its hull rested in cold, swift water 240 feet deep, well beyond the limits of where human beings can go breathing compressed air. But the introduction of TRIMIX (a blend of oxygen, helium and nitrogen), a gas once used exclusively by military and commercial divers, allowed recreational divers to go to new depths.

"Suddenly it seemed everyone was a technical diver, their jacket sleeves studded with the patches awarded by the dive training agencies upon the completion of their courses," Haberstroh writes. "The bad ones were called patch "divers." They trained in a couple of years to attempt the Andrea Doria, a feat previously reserved for those who had dived ten years or more."

Divers from all walks of life and all across the country would come to Montauk, 80 miles east of Manhattan, to dive aboard the Seeker, a charter boat that specialized in Doria dives. These weekend warriors would pay up to $1,000 for one shot at the wreck and the chance to perhaps slip inside and retrieve a tea cup, saucer or dinner plate as proof of their bravery.

Veteran Doria divers call this "China Fever."

Haberstroh describes how Dan Crowell, the Seeker's skipper, found an area inside the ship that would come to be known as "Secret Spot No. 26":

"He reached into the hole and gently removed a few saucers from the pile. He swung one of the pieces in front of his mask and, through the red stain of rust that he had dislodged with his arm movement, he could see that two gold lines were braided against a maroon band around the saucer's lip. This was first-class china."

But penetrating any shipwreck is dangerous. Years of accumulated silt and the lack of natural light because of the depth make it difficult to see. Old electrical wires and pipes can easily snag and trap an unsuspecting diver.

The author recalls the death of a Florida diver: "The cable had wrapped around his foot so many times - (he) had evidently struggled to free himself but succeeded only in tightening the cable's hold - that the police for a while investigated the death as a homicide. They couldn't believe that a diver could get into that much trouble."

At 240 feet, ordinary air becomes toxic. The nitrogen in compressed air at that depth also has a narcotic effect, an ailment technically known as nitrogen narcosis, which divers call "rapture of the deep."

Even the simplest of tasks, such as pushing a button to put compressed air into a buoyancy compensator, one of a diver's primary safety devices, can be extremely difficult.

Adding to the difficulty is the excessive amount of equipment a diver must carry to descend to great depths. The typical technical diver carries four or five tanks, several of which have different gas mixtures that if inhaled at the wrong time or depth could cause instant death.

As if swimming with 200 pounds of equipment against a strong current doesn't sound difficult enough, throw bone-chilling cold and, at times, aggressive sharks in the mix, you have a recipe for disaster.

That's why "techies," as they are called in the scuba community, call this particular form of deep-sea exploration "big boy diving."

But ordinary men such as Craig Sicola are willing to risk the unthinkable to get diving's ultimate badge of honor, an artifact from the Andrea Doria.

When Sicola surfaced unconscious on June 24, 1998, his companions tried CPR to no avail. A fellow diver grabbed his goody bag, hoping to preserve its contents.

"He could see that the pieces were the kind that more experienced divers had, on occasion, found in the kitchen. There was a dinner plate, an oval serving dish, and a first class bowl."

It is hard for most to understand what drives deep-wreck enthusiasts, their cave-diving counterparts and others, including mountain climbers and those daring souls who jump out of airplanes, to risk their lives in the name of sport.

Haberstroh, who writes a column for Long Island's Newsday, and who along with his colleagues won journalism's highest honor for their coverage of the crash of TWA Flight 800, gives about a close a look at the world below that you'll get without strapping on a set of steel 120s.

- Times outdoors editor Terry Tomalin gave up technical diving when he became a father.

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