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The Life and Dives of Craig Sicola

AFTER lowering themselves into Gimbel's Hole, Craig and Whittaker found the first hallway leading back. Gingerly, they made a right turn into it. They had heard there was china back there, cups and plates bearing the maroon-and-gold braid of the Doria's first-class service, wreck diving's most-wanted prize.

Craig led the way.

"We swam along inside the ship for quite a distance," Whittaker said, "and I figured it would be a nice, easy penetration, and it felt that way for a while. We were just swimming along, and then I realized at some point we had overshot where we had intended to go. Way overshot somehow."

They were about 10 feet too deep in the wreck. Whittaker waved his light back and forth to Craig. The two men swam up to each other.

Whittaker signaled that he intended to swim back out and end the dive. Craig agreed, and they headed out.

To direct their movements, the divers carefully kicked with their black swim fins. To stop themselves, they gently pressed their thickly gloved hands on the ship's corroding surfaces, dislodging silt and rust.

It glittered in their dive lights like red rain.
Dan Crowell
Newsday Photo/Michael Ach
Dan Crowell at the helm of the Seeker.

At two minutes after 5 p.m. on June 23, Paul Whittaker mounted the Seeker's submerged ladder and hauled himself onboard.

Eighteen minutes later, Craig came up.

The men perspired heavily. They wore fleece-lined jumpsuits and, over those, synthetic-rubber "dry suits." Each neoprene suit had bands of black rubber snapped tightly around the necks, wrists and ankles. Like Sherpas with heavy packs, they struggled over to the wide steel table where Seeker divers put on their gear and take it off.

Even as they were unzipping and unclipping, Craig and Whittaker saw cups and saucers arrayed before them.

That day, no one matched Gary Gentile, who had built a career on writing and talking about his expeditions to the Doria. He acted like the big-name diver he was, the others agreed, but no one could question his skills or his instincts. He brought up the most china. It was in the best condition. It was the talk of the Seeker.

No one seemed more fascinated than Craig.

Some of the less-experienced divers looked at only two things: Gentile's china, and the Andrea Doria deck plans posted near the cabin door. They looked at the china, then studied the plans. The china. The plans. There was a murmur.

Veteran diver Bart Malone could sense what he later described as greed. He started to believe it would be best for Gentile to stow the loot.

Malone and other experienced scuba divers generally don't care for the term "china fever." They say it's over-dramatic. It's something someone would say ominously in an old "Sea Hunt" episode -- they all grew up on "Sea Hunt" -- as the music swelled right before a commercial break.

Still, the phrase endures in their conversations as the best euphemism for what happens when divers allow their zeal for souvenirs to eclipse their concern for safety.

You can feel this on a dive boat. China fever starts as a murmur. A couple of divers will talk quietly among themselves. The china. The plans.

Under the unwritten code of highly experienced divers, no top diver could tell another what to do. And Gentile was certainly senior to Malone. He had been diving the Doria since 1974, and he successfully sued the federal government for access to the sunken remains of the Monitor, the famous Civil War ironclad.

But Malone was a dedicated diver also, with substantial experience. He recalled that he thought he should say something.

"Gary, you can't leave this stuff here," Malone said.

Gentile sat inside the cabin eating sandwiches.

"It'll psych people out," Malone said.

"OK, OK," Gentile said.

But Gentile continued to eat.

ON THE MORNING of June 24, Craig appeared to a few of the other divers to be taking his sweet time getting geared up.

So when he stepped off the gray deck of the boat at 10:37 a.m., he dived alone.

A few minutes later, he had descended 180 feet to the upturned hull of the Andrea Doria. The depth had reduced the ambient light to a deep blue-green.

From the anchor line Craig worked his way aft and down. Like all the divers, he swam slowly to save his breathing gases.

Soon, he saw the white flare of divers' lights at Gimbel's Hole. It was Paul Whittaker and Lyn Del Corio, the two divers with whom Craig originally had planned to dive.

Whittaker gave Craig the OK sign. He meant it as a question. Everything all right?

Craig returned the gesture. Everything's good.

Then Whittaker flashed a thumbs-up. He had enjoyed a fun dive. Craig nodded enthusiastically.

"Then he went in," Whittaker says. "That's it. Then we went to the anchor line."

It was about 10:45 a.m.

For Craig Sicola, the next 37 minutes would hold moments of crushing confusion. First, however, he enjoyed a thrilling discovery.

Divers know that Craig dropped into Gimbel's Hole. They believe he then made a turn toward the ship's stern, down a passageway that led from the oval-shaped foyer and into the dining room.

The U-shaped dining room spanned the width of the ship. Because the ship was now resting on its starboard side, that meant a full 90 feet separated what now appears to be the area's "ceiling" and "floor." Table legs jutted from the side like lances.

For the best technical divers, negotiating the dining room is a feat. For newer Doria divers, such as Craig, it is simply ill-advised.

"I really felt that Craig went beyond his skill level," Dan Crowell said. "It makes me mad to say this, because he didn't use his own training."

But Craig made it through the dining room to the kitchen. There, he dug out three pieces of china. One was so faded that it looked bone white. Two others were rusty and flecked with undersea muck, but they bore the prized maroon-and-gold band that indicated it was first-class china.

Craig pried the pieces from where the walls of the kitchen intersected with the back wall of the dining room. He placed them carefully in the mesh goodie bag clipped to his equipment harness.

When the Doria was afloat, the dining room was crowded with rose-colored armchairs huddled around ta bles draped in white. A floor-to-ceiling marquetry, crafted of 18 different kinds of wood and depicting a medieval hunting scene, covered one wall.

That had long fallen away, collapsing under the pressure and eaten by worms, revealing a buckling steel wall. What now was the lower half of the room was piled with debris and silt.

Without the weak sunlight that bathes the outside of the hull, visibility inside this room measures only a few feet.

Divers move forward by checking the glowing digital readouts on their depth gauges. They know they are maintaining their up-and-down position if their depth remains the same.

It's unknown what happened to Craig inside the ship, but it appeared from his diving gauge that as he inched from the kitchen and across the dining room he sank to 226 feet. That left him well below the passageway to the foyer and the path back outside the ship.

Somehow, Craig made it outside the Doria, but he couldn't find the Seeker's anchor line. So he decided to create his own way up to the surface. He reached behind his head and unstrapped the reel of thin, yellow rope and apparently tied one end to the wreck. He attached a lift bag to the other end and sent the inflatable buoy hurtling upward.

At 11:12 a.m., Seeker crew members saw it break the still surface of the ocean.

Dan Crowell and diver Steve Gatto sped to the bag in the Seeker's inflatable Zodiac boat. When they fished out the dripping lift bag, they discovered there was nothing on the other end. The nylon line had been severed at 150 feet -- not long enough to reach the Doria on the bottom. Its end appeared chafed through.

Ten minutes later, Craig heaved to the surface, face down.

Craig's face was blue and blotchy. His eyes were bloodshot. He was unresponsive and did not appear to be breathing. He showed the classic symptoms of what is commonly known as "the bends." He came up in minutes from 200 feet, an ascent that should have taken an hour.

When divers descend, the nitrogen they breathe dissolves and passes from their lungs into their bloodstream, then to their tissue. When the divers come up, the dissolved nitrogen migrates back into their bloodstreams, then moves to their lungs where it is breathed out as gas.

But if divers come up too quickly, the nitrogen can turn into gas bubbles that can block the flow of oxygen in their blood. It's impossible then for a diver to "off-gas" the nitrogen, and severe decompression sickness occurs.

Craig was foaming at the mouth. Jim Schultz and John Moyer cut Craig out of his dry suit, ripping away the tight rubber seals around his neck and ankles.

Six minutes after they found him, they started cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They whispered quiet words of encouragement.

"C'mon, Craig, c'mon, Craig," the men said, but Craig had no vital signs.

The Coast Guard dispatched a helicopter from Nantucket Airport, about 50 miles away. At 1 p.m., Craig's companions loaded him onto a basket lowered to the deck of the Seeker and watched him slowly ascend.

All that was left was for Craig to be officially pronounced dead at 2:09 p.m. at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

The Seeker's first trip to the Doria in 1998 had started in such high spirits. Now, the numbed divers found themselves launching what they called "accident analysis." It was almost a survival instinct for them to talk out what had gone wrong and find ways to avoid repeating it.

It appeared that Craig had become lost inside the ship, got out and tried to do an emergency ascent with his lift bag. But the line appeared to have snapped. Did he tie it off badly? Or had he become entangled in the line and cut it himself? His knife was missing and was never found.

In the rush of activity, someone placed the china from Craig's goodie bag into the sink. There was a dinner plate, an oval serving dish and a first-class bowl. They were blotched with rust.

Crowell walked over to the sink. "Where the -- -- -- did he go?" he said.

He held up one of the pieces of china.

"I know where he got this one from," he said. He looked over at Gentile, Whittaker recalled.

"Yeah," Gentile said, "he got it from the kitchen."

A hush fell on the men.

"We all looked at each other," Jim Schultz remembered. "Why was it worth it? Why?"

THAT AFTERNOON, the telephone rang in the investigations department at the Coast Guard station in New Haven, Conn.

It was Providence calling.

Lt. Lisa Campbell, an investigator attached to the Coast Guard unit in Rhode Island, had a favor to ask.

The wreck of the Andrea Doria lies within her jurisdiction, but the Seeker was headed back to Montauk. That's within New Haven's coverage area. Could they send someone to meet the boat?

Lt. Tim Dickerson, the 32-year-old assistant chief in the investigations department, dispatched Eric Allen, a petty officer based at the Coast Guard office in Coram.

Dickerson had no plans to lead the investigation. He was busy enough typing up dozens of reports on sinkings, at-sea equipment failures, groundings and drownings. He assumed Lisa Campbell would handle Craig's case.

"We were thinking about it as a one-time situation," Dickerson said, "but it didn't turn out that way last summer."

KAREN MOSCUFO couldn't sleep.

She rose at 5 a.m., only a few hours after leaving friends who had gathered on Long Beach Island the night of Craig's death.

She left her apartment, went down to the beach and walked toward Craig's house.

It was 18 blocks. The sun was just warming the horizon, and the sand was cool under her feet.

She and Craig had broken up the previous fall, but they still saw each other.

She felt like a widow.

Moscufo and Craig had once planned to retire together. They had dived around Barnegat Light near their homes. They had skiied the Rockies. They'd traveled to Key West together when Craig was certified as a trimix diver.

She still had a key and let herself in. She went straight to the living room, where Craig displayed a framed copy of the Andrea Doria deck plans.

Her idea was to take them off the wall and smash them on the ground. Instead, she set them on the table.

With her index finger, she traced where she believed Craig had gone, places he had told her about. Her long, blond hair fell upon the glass. She imagined him getting his china. He had talked so much about it. She was glad he had gotten his china, but she also was angry.

"Craig -- he's not going to wait," she said. "He had to go get it. He had this kid in him. He wanted to do it all. And that's why I'm -- -- -- at him, because it was selfish of him, to not consider all the repercussions, and what he left behind."

"He didn't come up alive. But the china did."

She walked to his room, and over to his closet. With her slender fingers, she touched Craig's clothes hanging there in the early morning light.

She breathed in deep so she could smell him.

Five days later, the mourners at Craig Sicola's funeral filed out of St. Thomas of Villanova Church in Surf City, N.J., and turned toward the ocean.

They gathered in a circle on the sand and placed Craig's surfboard on the beach. Someone had scrawled "We Love You, Craig" on it. Everyone had a flower in hand, and people said a few words about Craig, then dropped their flowers on the board.

About 30 of Craig's surfing buddies paddled through the breakers to the calm flats 150 yards out. They formed a circle there and sat up straight on their boards. They grabbed each others' hands.

Someone pushed Craig's surfboard, now loaded with flowers from the beach ceremony, into the center of the circle.

They started yelling, "Craig, we love you. Craig, we love you."

Louis Sicola, who keeps Craig's Andrea Doria china hidden away, settled into a sea kayak with another paddler. He wore a life jacket and a lei. They cut through the surf and out to the middle of the circle, and the surfers were still yelling.

"Craig, we love you. Craig, we love you."

It was not quite a chant. People were yelling haphazardly.

It was a good place to shout for Craig. He was a surfer, after all. Out on the flats, beyond the breakers, is where he waited on the water, as the swells rolled under his board and tickled his feet, right before he paddled furiously after the rising curl to catch a wave.

"Craig, we love you!"

Someone flipped Craig's board.

The bottom of the board glistened in the sunshine, and the flowers colored the water for a minute before the ocean began to take them under, one by one.


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