In Search for Prize, Two Lives Are Lost
By Andrew Metz, Oscar Corral and Zachary R. Dowdy
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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?"