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The Life and Death of the Andrea Doria

MORE COVERAGE:
Two Lives Are Lost

VIDEO COVERAGE:
Death and Diving
Dan Crowell, skipper of the Seeker, which brought the two divers to the wreck of the Andrea Doria, describes on a video he produced the incident that killed another diver last year.
--Seeker Productions

Seeker
Newsday Photo/ John Keating
Dan Crowell, skipper of the charter diving boat Seeker, has lost five customers to fatal accidents in the past 13 months at the wreck of the Andrea Doria.

 

Driving Safety At Issue
By Joe Haberstroh
Staff Writer

DAN CROWELL, skipper of the charter diving boat Seeker, has lost five customers to fatal accidents in the past 13 months at the wreck of the Andrea Doria. But he bristles at calls for change in his industry, which is flourishing largely outside any form of government oversight.

"It's a tragic, horrible coincidence," he said of the five deaths, including two in the past week. "But it's not a problem in diving, or any of that. The way I look at it, if there were five fatalities in a bowling alley, it would be a big story. Even if they were all heart attacks."

But others don't equate deep-sea scuba diving to a night at the local bowling lanes. While Crowell's fatalistic attitude is typical of most divers qualified to explore the 180-foot-deep hulk of the Andrea Doria, new questions are being asked about the laissez-faire environment that prevails at the nation's deepest and most exciting shipwrecks. The latest to die at the wreck was Charles McGurr, 52, of Brick, N.J., whose body was found Wednesday afternoon.

Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.), leader of the 30-member Coast Guard Caucus in the House of Representatives, plans to "take a quick, expedited look at what's going on" with diving at the Andrea Doria, said Steve Schwadron, an aide to Delahunt.

"The last thing we want to do is restrict people's movements unnecessarily," Schwadron said. "But it's self-evident that we've got to look at this situation very quickly. What makes sense to do here? In the next few days, we plan to gather the facts."

The Coast Guard, which administers regulations on commercial diving but not recreational diving, is also prepared to take a closer examination of the sport, and what common factors may exist in the Andrea Doria deaths since June, 1998.

"We are concerned, and we'd like to see this death rate stop," said Robert Higgins, who monitors diving fatalities from Coast Guard regional headquarters in Boston. "But there's not much the Coast Guard can really do without congressional support or direction."

Though the Coast Guard has no legal authority over recreational divers, it does administer regulations on commercial diving, which spokesman Jack O'Dell said are governed by laws passed by Congress and which have come about with the development of off-shore industries, such as oil-and-gas exploration.

Commercial diving is a strictly regulated industry. For example, when a commercial diver descends below 80 feet, federal regulations require that the diver be accompanied by a second diver and that a third person be ready to go into the water in case of an emergency.

But at the wreck of the Andrea Doria, which lies 180 feet under the Atlantic Ocean, recreational divers routinely explore the site alone.

But today's most advanced "extreme" divers are using techniques and equipment that only a decade ago were reserved for military and commercial divers.

"Diving technology has grown by a quantum leap in the past 20 years," O'Dell said. "The average diver has equipment now that lets him go deeper and stay down longer. There's more opportunity to get into trouble."

THE NATION'S leading diving-safety research organization, Durham, N.C.-based Divers Alert Network, doesn't believe the Coast Guard should clamp down on recreational diving, said Peter Bennett, DAN's director. Bennett pointed out that the Doria diver killed on July 21, Christopher Murley, 44, died after suffering an apparent heart attack while he clung to the Seeker's anchor line on the surface.

Bennett acknowledged, however, that the number of injuries and deaths suffered by "mixed-gas" divers -- those who use a blend of breathing gases to allow them to dive deeper and stay down longer -- are increasing. Eight such deaths occurred natiowide between 1994 and 1997.

But in the past two years alone, at least five deaths have occurred. Because so few divers are qualified to dive using mixed gas -- perhaps 10,000 people do it regularly nationwide -- the death rate for such divers rivals that of the nation's deadliest occupations, including commercial fishing and logging.

"I'm concerned that we may have a situation every summer at the Andrea Doria where we have two or three deaths there," Bennett said. "I think one of the things we can do is set up a workshop and really look at deep-diving risks and deep diving on wrecks."

Even discussion of restricted access has sent a shudder this week through the local diving community, said Pat Rooney, a veteran Andrea Doria diver from Copiague. "I don't know what's going to happen, but my fear is, it will hurt the most advanced and responsible divers," Rooney said.

Rooney, however, is concerned that many divers new to the sport -- Murley had been diving for just two years -- are using mixed gases to replace years of experience. Rooney, for example, said he dived for 17 years before attempting the Doria.

And at least one dive-boat captain questions whether all divers who are formally certified are also experienced enough to handle the challenging Doria explorations.

"When you're putting 10 or 11 trips on your schedule each summer, that means you need to fill 10 or 11 trips," said Steve Bielenda, whose diveboat, the Wahoo, makes one or two trips to the site annually. "There just aren't enough qualified people out there to fill that many trips."

Nevertheless, most divers relish the lack of oversight in their industry, and they view each accident as a fated, isolated event with particular causes.

"When you're number's up, it's up," said Jenn Samulski, a crew member aboard the Seeker, and companion of its skipper, Dan Crowell. "I'd prefer it not to be on my boat, but we can't stop living because of this. Anybody who's at the level to dive the Doria knows the risks involved. For most of them, it's what they enjoy doing and they are going to do it no matter who takes them out."

--Oscar Corral contributed to this story.

 

In Search for Prize, Two Lives Are Lost

By Andrew Metz, Oscar Corral and Zachary R. Dowdy
Staff Writers

CHARLIE MCGURR was 20 feet from the prize, a veteran scuba diver holding an anchorline attached to the Mt. Everest of dive sites, the sunken passenger liner Andrea Doria. He had reached the wreck twice the day before, his 52nd birthday, and last summer recovered china plates and cups and crystal bowls.

But five minutes into the last expedition Wednesday morning, before he was supposed to return to his wife and two children in Brick, N.J., McGurr signaled two diving companions that he was turning back.

He knew the rules were different 180 feet below the surface: In a place where air is bottled and precious and men die to touch a single Italian saucer, he understood that whatever was wrong, he would have to handle it alone.

"Charlie had gotten about 20 feet from the wreck and from me and he waved us on . . . he did the OK sign," said Peter Wohllaben, a friend and crew member on the boat called Seeker that had taken the divers from Montauk to the site 90 miles off Long Island. "I thought nothing of it. I figured he was tired or something. He was his usual calm, cool, collected self."

It's not unusual for divers to abort along the anchorline, a safety zone in this extreme sport. Visibility was good Wednesday -- about 60 feet, Wohllaben estimated -- but the water currents were strong. For reasons that may never be fully known, McGurr, a Vietnam Green Beret and competition skydiver, never returned to the Seeker.

Around 1:45 p.m., more than four hours after he rolled backward into the ocean, laden with scuba gear, divers found him 200 feet under water, his air regulator spit from his mouth, his body lying on the Andrea Doria's promenade deck. He was the second diver to be killed at the site in a week, and the fifth in 13 months.

"I'm getting tired of collecting dead guys, I'll tell you that," said Dan Crowell, McGurr's friend and the skipper of the Seeker, standing on the docks in Montauk yesterday. "This is the best time Charlie ever had in his life. The future of the Seeker is not in question. Charlie would have wanted us to continue with the dives."

With McGurr's body on deck, the Seeker arrived at the Coast Guard station at Star Island in Lake Montauk around midnight. Authorities removed the body for autopsy and at a marina nearby the boat's crew set about the somber task of unloading gear, fixing a broken generator and preparing for the next excursion, scheduled for today.

In Brick, McGurr's family was inconsolable, unable to speak about the auto-body mechanic, the eldest of six children, a man whose quiet belied an internal thirst for thrill.

"We're like a little family here," said Karen Courtney, who works at the 18th Avenue Beach House, a bar that McGurr and his wife, Kathleen, have owned for two years. "He was a great guy."

McGurr left Friday for the trip to the Andrea Doria, and regulars at the bar said yesterday that before setting off, he picked up coolers filled with ice there, and kissed his wife.

"He was all pumped up," the bartender said. "He kissed his wife, Kathy, and said goodbye."

In an interview Wednesday night, Kathleen McGurr said she was always nervous about her husband's underwater expeditions, but that he promised her that "if something didn't feel right, he wouldn't do it."

She said the only thing easing her grief is the knowledge "he died doing what he loved doing."

By the accounts of his family and friends, McGurr was the kind of diver who others looked up to. He was meticulous about his gear, his mix of gases in his air tanks. He was capable of fixing mechanical problems, drawing on his years at the auto-body shop.

The day before his fatal dive, McGurr had reached the Doria, and "was having a good time. It was his birthday," said his diving partner Wohllaben. "We were joking that we couldn't find enough candles to put in the cupcake for him."

That night he tinkered with his equipment, adjusting his tanks and then woke up early Wednesday and spent the morning further preparing the gear, according to Jenn Samulski, the co-owner of Seeker.

Shortly before 9 a.m., he put on a dive suit, fins, two main tanks, one pony bottle and two stage bottles. At about 9:01 a.m., he rolled backward into the water for a 77-minute excursion with Wohllaben and Darryl Johnson, a passenger.

Speaking about McGurr's death yesterday, a weary-looking Crowell, with tossled hair and worn T-shirt and shorts, said he believed his friend passed out from carbon dioxide build-up in his lungs as he made his way back to the Seeker from the wreck. At one point on his descent, McGurr briefly let go of the anchor line and had to work against the current to regain his grip, Crowell said.

"He drowned probably because the current was a little strong and he had CO2 build-up from breathing hard," Crowell said. "He basically hyperventilated. He probably fell off the anchorline and being heavy instead of bouyant, he ended up on the wreck."

"His regulator was out of his mouth when I found him," said Crowell. "He either spit it out as a natural instinct or it may have been knocked out as he plummeted to the wreck."

But if the Seeker crew were confident in McGurr's abilities, they were wary of Christopher Murley, 44, the novice diver from Cincinnati who died of a heart attack July 21 while swimming along the anchorline.

"I was concerned with his health and fitness," Crowell said. "His instructor reassured me he had been diving a couple of weeks prior. I wouldn't have wanted him to go diving."

Ultimately, the instructor won out though. "I voiced my concern over the guy. He was with his instructor. He basically was like a six-foot, eight-inch, 320-pound guy. Both his mother and his father had heart conditions from what I hear," he said.

Crowell said that he has had no cancellations yet, and his trips for next year are fully booked. "It's not like I wouldn't mind blowing off this weekend's dive, but we're getting hammered money-wise," Crowell said. "It's one of those tough decisions. I have a responsibility to the people who dive with me and a personal financial responsibility."

Most of the passengers and crew from the Seeker were speechless during and after the nine-hour trip from the wreck site Wednesday, McGurr's body on deck and the memory of Murley's death still fresh.

"It was the type of quiet that is present toward the end of a no-hitter in baseball, when no one wants to talk to the pitcher," said Michael Kane of Staten Island, an accountant who was a passenger on the boat. "It was like unspoken almost."

But few disavowed diving or their skipper. "I've never been on a diving boat where there was a fatality," said Joe King of Hudson, N.H., whose best friend Richard Roost was killed diving off the Seeker at the site last summer. "[Crowell's] really the best qualified person to do these trips. And that absolutely holds strong now."

King, who dove off the Seeker Wednesday shortly after McGurr, said he once saw Crowell hold up a piece of Andrea Doria china and say, "Is your life worth this plate?"

 
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