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The Life and Death of the Andrea Doria
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Photo by Michael E. Ach
Dan Crowell and Jenn Samulski display some of the china the Doria yielded last summer.
Deadly Lure Continued
SOMETIMES, THE DIVERS of the Seeker mined the Andrea Doria like their own private lode of sunken treasure.

Once, they bolted a steel grate on the Doria's hull to bar the way to a trove of pristine china. They even left a sign there: "Closed for Inventory -- Patrons and Crew of Seeker."

Everyone liked to say that was years ago. And they took pains to point out that their rivals had a bit of the buccaneer in them, too. Hadn't the skipper of another dive boat once shotgunned the Seeker's Doria marker buoy?

"It's a hot ------ dive boat," said diver Tom Surowiec, a Union City, N.J., police officer who bristles at the brusque style of the Seeker's forceful skipper, Dan Crowell. "For years, Seeker always went were nobody else wanted to go."

Crowell, of Brick, N.J., said his crew and customers have the reputation of "pushing the edge of the envelope more than anyone else." Everyone who dived deep knew that among the half-dozen charter boats that worked the Doria, the Seeker always took the most trophies.

As the new Andrea Doria season opens this week, the Seeker's charters are fully reserved. The first trip to the Doria leaves Monday night from Montauk, and in the next eight weeks, Crowell expects to lead 200 people to the site.

Dan Crowell has a personal computer in the wheelhouse and a technical turn of mind, but he commands his boat with the same blunt talk favored by centuries of skippers paid to make life-and-death decisions every day they go to sea.

Crowell, 40, has a certain swagger about his diving, a confident air that stems from his natural athleticism, innate smarts and 25 yearsexperience.

His day job for the last decade has essentially been that of an underwater construction worker. Supplied with surface air pumped through long hoses -- as opposed to the portable air strapped onto a scuba harness -- Crowell fixes bridge abutments, welds oceanic sewer pipes and recovers the occasional drowned fisherman.

The deadly events of last summer, however, set him adrift. Uncertainty ate at his usual assurance. People were calling the Seeker "Morgue Boat." Should he quit?

"Yes, and no," Crowell said when asked if he considered the possibility. Three men had died on his watch.

"But I'm just a bus driver," he continued, "and a lot of people want to go with the most experienced bus driver."

Newsday Photo/Michael E. Ach
Dan Crowell on the Seeker, widely considered the top dive boat of those that work the Andrea Doria. The usually confident Crowell was struck by self-doubt, however, after three decades.

His customers included unknown but accomplished divers such as Sicola, Roost and Napoliello, but also men whose exploits were routinely detailed in the scuba magazines and in their own books.

John Chatterton and Crowell were the subject of international TV coverage after they discovered and identified a sunken German submarine off New Jersey. Gary Gentile, a self- styled adventurer and underwater photographer, published the best-illustrated book on the Doria. Scholarly John Moyer fought in federal court to secure the salvage rights to the Doria's biggest artifacts. Men such as Steve Gatto and Bart Malone -- one of them an electrician, the other a carpenter -- logged more than 200 dives on the Doria between them.

When men like these needed a ride to the Doria, they chose the Seeker.

Doria divers are an exclusive subset of an already rarified class of scuba divers, those who explore the murky confines of the deepest wrecks. They embrace the terror to feel the exhilaration of vanquishing it and the satisfaction of dismissing it all as simply routine.

"Diving is all about fear," said diver Joseph Gaddy. "We're the one-percenters. We're out there on our own curve. If you were doing a statistical analysis, we'd be the ones you throw out."

For some divers, the lure of the Doria is part sensuous, part spiritual. They are romanced by the weightlessness of the deep dive, their 20th-Century equipment allowing them to safely visit a silent and elemental world apart from their careers and commutes. All while remaining perfectly dry in zippered, loose-fitting suits of synthetic rubber.

"You need a reason to walk around the planet other than deciding which restaurant to go to, or where to go shopping," said diver Shelley Johnson. "If it's true we all came from the oceans, then it's nice to go home."

Most of the divers don't even breathe air when they descended to the Doria. Their scuba tanks are filled with a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen and helium that eased their "technical" diving below the informal 130-foot limit observed by most recreational scuba enthusiasts.

The so-called trimix blend of gases contains less oxygen than normal air. By reducing their nitrogen intake and adding a small portion of helium, the divers hope to avoid narcosis, the dangerous narcotic effect of nitrogen at high pressure underwater. This can cause erratic and often self-destructive behavior in even the best divers. Jacques Cousteau called this physiological phenomenon "the rapture of the deep."

But trimix has its own risks. Emboldened trimix divers, unburdened by narcosis, may conduct themselves with insufficient attention to detail. And safe technical diving demands such attention.

On a typical visit to the Doria, divers breathe from two main tanks on their five-minute descent and during their 20-minute exploration of the wreck. Their way back up is much trickier. To allow their bodies sufficient time to expel the nitrogen that has built up in their bloodstreams under pressure, the divers must slowly "decompress."

After swimming from the Doria up to the 100-foot level, they switch mouthpieces so they can breath off one of their decompression tanks, which contain a slightly higher percentage of oxygen. Creeping up the dive boat's anchor line, they begin a series of one-minute stops -- generally every 10 feet -- until they are just 20 feet underwater. Then, they switch mouthpieces again, breathing yet another decompression mix, and execute two longer stops.

The divers must constantly check their depth and time underwater on digital gauges, which dangle on hoses from their harnesses. The dive boat's anchor line swings in the strong ocean currents. All the while, other divers are crawling down it. To avoid the traffic jam, some returning divers clip into the anchor line with short lengths of rope and suspend themselves a few feet away, like kites. The ascents usually take an hour or more.

At least seven people nationwide died last year using trimix -- including the three Seeker divers. Experts estimate there are roughly 10,000 active trimix divers among the more than 1 million U.S. scuba enthusiasts.

The seven deaths in 1998 mean that trimix diving, which scuba enthusiasts do for fun, compares statistically with the nation's deadliest occupations, fishing and logging.

"We're self-appointed guinea pigs," said Dan Crowell, pointing out that the gas mixture and ascent rates are based only on mathematical models. "A lot are not proven."

Many senior divers have begun to express concern that some divers, driven by an unquenchable urge to retrieve artifacts and explore often-confusing deep-water shipwrecks, are using the gas mixtures before they are ready. Trimix is speeding up divers' progression from the easier wrecks to the nastiest.

"Generally speaking, there are divers out there who are diving trimix who, although they have met all the requirements for certification, I don't believe they have the background and the long experience to be diving on these deep wrecks," said John Moyer. "A lot of us have been diving on shipwrecks on air for 20 years before we switched over to the trimix."

Doria divers operate free of regulation. Although most of them are certified to use trimix by one of the sport's training agencies, it's not required. Also, there's no limit on the number of people who are allowed to visit: Once, five dive boats anchored the same day at the site. The U.S. Coast Guard places no restrictions on access to the Doria, which lies in international waters.

"They are hurting no one but themselves," said Lt. Tim Dickerson, the Coast Guard marine-safety officer who investigated the three 1998 Doria deaths.

Like climbers worried about the increasing traffic on Everest, divers such as Moyer and Dan Crowell point out that more people than ever are diving the Doria. There have never been so many diving-certification agencies, and the nation's deepening fascination with so-called extreme sports is feeding an interest in technical diving.

The more divers, they say, the greater the likelihood that someone will be killed.

Most divers who knew the three men who died last summer do not link their deaths to their use of trimix, which was reserved for military and commercial use until about 15 years ago. They are more likely to blame the Doria's uniquely disorienting nature. Or the lack of options when a diver encounters a physical or equipment problem in the darkness 200 feet below the surface.

"It's just another big wreck until you get inside, and there are 9,000 different things to entangle you," said Joe Jackson, a diver from Cincinnati. "Stairways become hallways, and the current just rips you off the wreck."

This is what the hotshots on the Seeker called big-boy diving.

"Technical diving has nothing to do with how they died," said Bart Malone, a regular on the Seeker. "They died because they ------ up."

SIX WEEKS BEFORE his body bobbed to the ocean surface 180 feet above the Andrea Doria, Vince Napoliello chatted on the phone as his computer screen saver flashed a scuba diver swimming among sharks.

Bill Cleary, a 37-year-old lawyer in Hackensack, N.J., was on the line. He wanted Vince to sign up for a charter he was organizing to the Doria -- the Seeker, naturally. Third week in August. Cleary had recruited some of their diving buddies -- Emmett McDowell, an Upper Saddle River police officer; Denis Murphy, another Jersey cop.

They had all trained in diving together over the past few years. Vince emerged as a leader in the group. He was considered an extremely cautious diver. Offshore, cut off from their stressful workaday worlds, the men enjoyed a camaraderie rooted in their love for technical diving and well oiled with locker-room humor. They liked quoting absurdly macho lines to each other from the film "Scarface." Vince packed the gadgets. He had a "potato cannon," a length of plastic pipe fired-up with hair spray that he used to shell other boats with spuds.

But Vince couldn't commit to the August trip. He was a 32-year-old financial adviser who was beginning to establish himself.

It wasn't easy for him to shine at first at Legg Mason, a 100-year-old brokerage house with offices 26 floors above Battery Park. It was a conservative firm, and he was an exuberant extrovert. But his Brooks Brothers suits were just right, and he always show-ed for the Wall Street dart league matches. He used his social ease and quick mind to aggressively network in the physician-investor community -- his father was a doctor -- and it was paying off. He was about to make six figures for the second straight year.

Any time was a bad time to take off. He could barely squeeze in lunch at Smiler's Deli on Broadway with his colleague David Murphy. To save time, they always got the salad bar.

He had also told Murphy and other friends that he wanted to cut back on diving. His fiancee, Marisa Gengaro, was supportive, but Vince said he felt it wasn't fair to her for him to pursue such a risky sport. The trips to the same sites had begun to feel repetitive. Besides, he had already signed up for the July 4 Seeker charter to the Doria.

"It wouldn't be the same without you, Vince," Cleary told his friend.

"I don't know if I can make a trip during the week happen," Vince said.

Cleary's summer diving schedule had been set three months earlier. His enthusiasm was contagious, and on the telephone, he could be a wall of sound.

But when the two men broke off their conversation, Vince still had not made up his mind.

THE SUMMER MOON, full and the color of bone, cast its reflection across the black surface of the North Atlantic and glinted off scuba tanks arranged on the Seeker's deck like tin soldiers.

It was June 23, 1998, and the Seeker was in the middle of nowhere, on the featureless shoulder of the transatlantic shipping lanes.. But the 18 experienced scuba divers aboard that night were anchored to the sunken monument of their dreams, the remains of the Andrea Doria.

It had been a good day diving. Dan Crowell and Gary Gentile had brought up dozens of pieces of first-class china. No one was more fascinated than Craig Sicola. But when he asked Crowell and Gentile where the china could be found, they brushed him off.

"It's in Gary's Secret Spot No. 26," Gentile said.

Craig still spent the evening pumping the other divers for information.

"I gotta get china," he said. "I gotta get china."

As the Seeker's wooden timbers creaked in the gentle swells offshore, Craig talked quietly with Steve Gatto, one of the most experienced divers on the trip, and Jenn Samulski, Crowell's longtime companion and business partner. She kept the Seeker's careful dive logs -- time in, time out -- and she also was known for engaging Crowell in shipboard shouting matches.

Craig studied a set of Andrea Doria deck plans posted near the open cabin door. Distributed long ago to passengers, they were labeled in Italian and English.

Ponte Del Sole. Sun Deck.

Craig said he was offended by Gentile's "secret spot" remark.

"Craig, listen. I'll tell you why Gary said that," Gatto explained. "It's in a bad spot. It's in a stairwell, and stairwells are very disorienting. He doesn't want you to get lost, and it's for your benefit."

Gatto reminded Craig that Crowell had generously offered to run a rope into the area.

"Yeah," said Craig, perhaps aware that all the divers could then use the safety line, "but that's not necessarily going to get me china."

Gatto was frustrated. He thought it a corny term, but believed Craig had a touch of "china fever." It was all about mixing up priorities. Gatto had helped recover bodies. He knew it wasn't all bad luck. Sometimes divers really did make bad decisions.

Craig's detective work had led him to believe that the Foyer Deck kitchen held a cache of china. He said nothing about it to either Gatto or Samulski.

He continued to look at the plans. Ponte Passeggiata. Promenade Deck.

Samulski, who was sitting on a white cooler on deck, spoke up.

"Craig," she said, "an attitude like that is only going to get you a pine box."

Craig turned to her. He seemed to take in what she had said. "That would be bad," he said, quietly.

Gatto said: "Yes, that would be bad."

"If you're patient," he added, "the dishes will come."

Gatto walked inside. Craig remained at the cabin door near the deck plans. Ponte Vestiboli. Foyer Deck. There, inked on the plans, was the familar oval shape of the first-class Foyer, just below Gimbel's Hole.

And further to the left on the plans -- although underwater this would be to the right, toward the ship's stern -- Craig saw what appeared as an unlabeled warren of rooms.

The kitchen.

The next morning dawned picture perfect. The air temperature was 65 degrees. Visibility was three miles. Even the current in the water was favorable, maybe a half mile an hour.

As Dan Crowell watched the divers gear up on the deck below him, he summed up the conditions in his log with a single word: "Calm."

On the day he died, Craig was supposed to go diving with his friend Paul Whittaker and another diver named Lyn Del Corio.

But when those two men stepped from the deck of the Seeker into the water, Craig wasn't ready to go.

That didn't seem like Craig at all. He was always ready.

Jim Schultz, a close friend of Craig's who was there, said Craig seemed to be "dragging it out."

Whittaker jumped in at 10:26 a.m. Del Corio followed at 10:27. Craig finally plunged into the water 10 minutes later, at 10:37.

He had decided to explore the Andrea Doria alone.

 

Doria Divers Who Died

FOR 25 YEARS after the Andrea Doria sank in 1956, no scuba divers were killed at the site. Since 1981, 10 have died there. Besides the three who died in the summer of 1998:

July 1, 1981. John S. Barnett, 40, of Pound Ridge, N.Y. Diving from the charter boat Sea Hunter I. Investigators suspected he convulsed and stopped breathing because when his body was found, near Doria's bridge, he had air left in his tanks.

July 15, 1984. Francis Kennedy, 37, of Wrentham, Mass. Charter boat Wahoo. Ran out of oxygen during ascent.

Aug. 1, 1985. John Ormsby, 27, of Key West, Fla. Wahoo. Drowned after tangling ankle in a cable in wreck.

July 15, 1988. Joe Drozd, 42, Stonington, Conn. Dive boat Seeker. Cut himself free of line entangling his air tanks, then became disoriented, spat out his regulator and drowned.

July 2, 1992. Matthew G. Lawrence, 32, of Miami Lakes, Fla. Seeker. Tanks had inadequate oxygen (.5 percent). Died 14 minutes into dive 260 feet under.

July 15, 1992. Michael William Scofield, 36, of Soquel, Calif. Seeker. Low on air, he apparently got lost 30 feet inside wreck, passed out and depleted air.

July 12, 1993. Robert Santulli, 33, Port Jefferson. Sea Hunter III. Coast Guard found he panicked inside wreck at depth of 210 feet, struggled with another diver, allowed regulator to fall out of his mouth and drowned.

 

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