Deadly Lure Continued
Photo by Michael E. Ach
Dan Crowell and Jenn Samulski display some
of the china the Doria yielded last summer.
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"I gotta get china," he said. "I gotta get
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"
"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
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
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
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 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:
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.