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Seeker
Newsday File Photo/Michael Ach
Dan Crowell, the captain and owner of the Seeker (above), dived to the scene to try to rescue Charles McGurr last night. Crowell is shown in November 1998.

 

Diving Deaths
By Joe Haberstroh, Zachary R. Dowdy and Andrew Metz
Staff Writers

A FORMER Vietnam War Green Beret intent on retrieving treasures from the sunken passenger liner Andrea Doria died yesterday while exploring the wreck 90 miles off Long Island, the fifth diver to be killed at the site in 13 months and the second in the last week.

Like the other four men, Charles McGurr of Brick, N.J., 52, had taken the Montauk-based charter boat Seeker to the wreck, where last year he had found a prized plate bearing the name of the shipping line "Italia."

"He was so proud of it because it said `Italia' on the plate," said McGurr's mother, Blanche McGurr, of Manchester, N.J. "We are shocked, but I feel he went the way he wanted to go. He knew the dangers. How many of us have this choice?"

But McGurr's death has shaken the diving community. "What it means is, we have to change something," said Tom Doherty, owner of Treasure Cove Water Sports in Westfield, N.J. "Something has to give. This is impossible. This is five tragedies too many."

McGurr, an auto body mechanic and father of two grown children, was the 12th fatality at the Andrea Doria since 1981. He died a week after Christopher Murley, 44, of Cincinnati, apparently suffered a heart attack July 21 while swimming along a line leading from the Seeker to the wreck.

This was the second summer McGurr had served as a crew member on the Seeker. He turned 52 on Tuesday, and the trip was a birthday present to himself, his wife, Kathleen, said last night. Before setting off for Montauk Friday, McGurr and the owner of the Seeker stopped at the restaurant the couple ran in South Belmar, N.J.

"They came to the restaurant and got ice and we said goodbye and that was it," she said.

The Seeker was headed last night to the Star Island Yacht Club, where it is based each summer. The Suffolk County medical examiner's office was prepared to accept McGurr's body for autopsy.

 

 
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Robert Wass, a Smithtown diving-equipment expert, said he had been contacted by authorities and asked to examine McGurr's gear.

Authorities had few details of the accident. The Coast Guard said McGurr, who was working as a crew member aboard the dive boat, was last seen at a depth of 180 feet, where the Doria lies on its starboard side on the bottom of the ocean. The Seeker crew reported McGurr missing at 11 a.m., and the boat's skipper, Daniel Crowell, dived to the wreck to locate McGurr. The lifeless body was retrieved by two Seeker divers at about 1:45 p.m.

No charter boat takes more divers to the Andrea Doria than the Seeker, and people who know Crowell said they were stunned by the boat's series of accidents.

"This is going to upset Danny pretty good," said John Chatterdon, a friend of Crowell's who has made more than 130 dives on the Andrea Doria. "Last year was a real bad year. You just don't expect that to be followed by another very bad year."

The 697-foot Andrea Doria, which sank on July 25, 1956, after a collision with another liner, is often referred to as the "Mt. Everest" of scuba diving. Only the most highly qualified divers attempt to explore the wreck, a darkened maze of muck-filled passageways turned on their sides. The site is also subject to strong ocean currents and summertime water temperatures in the 40s.

Like the three divers who died last summer, McGurr apparently used a blend of gases known as "tri-mix" in his air tanks as he explored the ship. To avoid the narcotic effect of nitrogen at the high pressure underwater, divers replace some of the nitrogen in their tanks with helium. So, tri-mix contains oxygen, nitrogen and helium.

McGurr's family said he was a competition skydiver and an avid scuba diver who dived at many wrecks over the years and was a member of a local diving club.

Kathleen McGurr said that last summer her husband brought home a cache of treasure from the Andrea Doria: two cups and saucers, two crystal salad bowls, and the plate for his mother.

She said that even though her husband was a veteran diver, she always worried about his safety. She said they had discussed the risks of diving many times before.

"He said if he didn't feel right about something, he wouldn't do it," she said. "That was the talk we always had."

Murley, the diver killed last week, was a newcomer to the wreck. After making successful dives last week on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, he was about to descend on his third dive Wednesday at 5 p.m. when he appeared to be in trouble, said Joe Jackson, another Cincinnati diver who was swimming a few feet away.

"I asked him what was wrong and it was apparent that things weren't right," Jackson said yesterday from the Cincinnati home of Murley's parents. "He seemed to be struggling hanging onto the anchor line. Some people on the boat said they heard him call out for help and as we approached the back of the boat somebody said he's not breathing."

Crew members pulled him onto the deck and tried to revive him with cardiopulmonary resuscitation before Coast Guard personnel arrived and airlifted him to Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis. But Murley died of a massive heart attack that was unrelated to the sport he loved so much.

Yesterday, about 150 people crowded into the Vorhees Funeral Home in Cincinnati to honor Murley, who had plunged into the sport of diving with great passion only two years ago, but had quickly gained the skills to tackle the world's most feared dive.

"He was a fast learner," Jackson said. "He was really comfortable in the water. When things went wrong he would deal with them a lot better than more experienced divers."

Mark Kammer, Murley's best friend of 27 years and a civilian employee of the U.S. Air Force, said Murley owned Better Telephones and Technology, a successful telephone installation company that he had started 16 years ago in Cincinnati.

Murley dived nearly every weekend in preparation for the big dive.

"He went at it with great gusto," Kammer said.

Oscar Corral, Tom Demoretcky and Lauren Terrazzano contributed to this story.

 
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