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Graphic: Deconstructing the Dive -- Vincent Napoliello

Vincent Napoliello
Vincent Napoliello
A Diver's Mystifying Death
By Joe Haberstroh
Staff Writer

 

THE GUY WAS ALIVE, and he had no right to be.

Dan Crowell swallowed his anger and quickly began formulating a rescue plan as Jack Moulliett thrashed in the water a few feet away.

"Help!" Moulliett screamed. "I need air!"

Crowell, the Seeker's skipper, was back at the Andrea Doria with a boatload of divers from Cincinnati. Two weeks had passed since the death of Richard Roost. A month since Craig Sicola had died.

Down on the wreck, Moulliett's scuba mouthpiece and an air tank had failed. So he sped to the surface in minutes, his lungs struggling to adapt to the rapidly changing pressure. Normally, divers take at least an hour to ascend methodically from 200 feet.

Crowell ordered two divers into the water with a set of fresh air tanks for Moulliett. Using a computer mounted in the Seeker's wheelhouse, Crowell calculated that Moulliett would have to stay in the water for five hours to compensate for his dangerously fast ascent.

Then, he found a quiet corner of the Seeker, sat down and cried. Dan Crowell, limp from fatigue and frustration, had finally cracked.

"What the hell are these guys doing?" he thought "This guy was No. 3, and we pulled him through it, and then it becomes apparent that he did something extremely stupid."

Crowell didn't cry for long that day. He set out to make it clear to Moulliett just how disgusted he was.

How could Moulliett think he was ready to go diving on the Doria with a dried-out old mouthpiece and a tank with a rotting seal? And how had he managed to keep hold of his mesh goodie bag filled with Andrea Doria china, even as he rocketed to the surface in a panic? Crowell didn't let up.

Mouillett took it, but he wondered where Crowell got the gall.

"You lost two divers," Mouillett thought. "If those divers would have kept their heads like I did, maybe they would be alive."

AT 8 O'CLOCK the night of Aug. 3, Vince Napoliello motioned for the other divers to huddle around an equipment box on the dock.

Inside was what the men called a potato cannon, a crude mortar fashioned of plastic pipe. It had an electrical switch and they fired it up with hairspray. Vince also had packed the ammunition -- three bags of potatoes. Thus armed, the giggling men agreed, they would launch an attack on the Sea Inn, a rival charter boat also scheduled to be moored at the Andrea Doria the next day.

"Vince was definitely the comedian," said diver Emmett McDowell.

As usual, over-the-top quotations from the film "Scarface" threaded through the high-spirited chatter.

"First you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the woman," they would say. Someone would produce Cuban cigars, and they would mimic Al Pacino's absurdly theatrical Havana accent.

At about 10:30 p.m., the Seeker sailed out of Lake Montauk and into the open sea. Vince grabbed his cell phone and dialed the number of his fiancee, Marisa Gengaro, a teacher who worked in Manhattan and lived in a Jersey City high-rise.

"Be careful," Vince told her. "Don't take the PATH train at night. Be careful walking the dog at night."

Typical Vince. He's groping around in flipped-over shipwrecks 200 feet under water, and he tells Marisa to be careful walking the dog. But then, if she tried to do her eyeliner while he was driving, he'd pull over until she was done.

"You be careful," Marisa said in her husky voice. "I love you."

"Love you," Vince said. "The phone line's breaking up. See you Thursday!"

For Vince and the other men, the Seeker and its three-day Doria expeditions were tickets to a few days of relaxation. Vince worked on Wall Street, Bill Cleary was a lawyer, Denis Murphy and Emmett McDowell were police officers. Stocked with salty snacks and nautical videos ("Das Boot," "The Deep"), the Seeker's airy main cabin was the men's clubhouse, a place to tinker with equipment and make fun of each other.

There were even high-school-style nicknames. Vince, who sometimes loitered on the Seeker's deck in boat shoes and flannel pants, was an easy target. "Yuppie," they called him.

He enjoyed a good life. During the week on Wall Street, he wore Brooks Brothers suits and cuff links shaped like anchors. Whenever he sent flowers to Marisa, he chose red roses.

THE BREEZE from the southeast refreshed the divers on the Seeker as they climbed into black rubber suits.

Two hundred feet away bobbed the charter vessel Sea Inn. It was loaded with divers, organized by Nick Caruso, training director at Sea Dwellers, a shop in Hillsdale, N.J.

Caruso and Dan Crowell didn't like each other. They'd argued over money a few years ago.

Crowell openly ridiculed Caruso's diving ability -- Caruso had buddied with another diver, Matthew Lawrence, who was killed on the wreck in 1992. Caruso, in turn, liked to say that "egos" were to blame for the deaths aboard the Seeker.

Over on the Seeker that afternoon, Vince crouched on the bow, making calls to his office at Legg Mason in Manhattan. He was tense because the stock market was headed toward a 300-point drop. Vince steered his clients to aggressive growth stocks, the roller-coaster issues that carry high risk. The market's free fall hurt.

He also had to work the phone to address a margin call; the plummeting market had left a client's portion of a stock purchase short of cash, and that client had to be tracked down immediately.

Sometime after 3 p.m., Vince hung up the phone and went to the Seeker's cockpit near the stern, where the divers buckled on their equipment. He looked distracted to Cleary, but other divers said Vince seemed fine.

Six feet tall and 180 pounds, Vince strapped on some 200 pounds of gear, including five steel cylinders containing his breathing gases. Vince's two main tanks, side by side on a stainless-steel frame that resembled a hiker's backpack, held a blend of 17 percent oxygen, 30 percent helium and 53 percent nitrogen.

A short steel pipe joined the tops of the two tanks. A black knob, the "isolator valve," controlled the flow between the two big cylinders. Most divers kept the isolator valve open. That way, as they breathed underwater, the levels of gas drew down equally in both tanks.

However, if one tank failed, a diver could shut down the valve and breathe off only one side.

Vince also slung two smaller, bright yellow tanks at his side to breathe on as he made his 65-minute ascent back to the Seeker. He would rely on the tank containing 36 percent oxygen for the deepest decompression stops. The other, filled with 80 percent oxygen, he would use for those closest to the surface.

If divers breathe off the 80-percent tank when they're at 100 feet underwater, they might convulse because too much oxygen becomes toxic at the higher pressure deep underwater.

Because it's so important for the Doria divers to breathe off the correct tanks at the correct time, it's also essential that they label them clearly. The divers mark each tank with the percentage of oxygen the canister contains.

Vince had not labeled his tanks well that afternoon. It was not like him, and it caught the notice of several men on the Seeker.

Diver Mike Wagner mentioned to Vince that the decompression tank hanging from his left side was labeled 80 percent and the right-side cylinder was marked "81.3%."

Vince assured him that the 81.3-percent bottle in fact contained 36 percent oxygen. He explained that he had used the tank on his first dive of the day, when it actually contained 81.3 percent oxygen, but he had diluted the blend to the proper 36-percent oxygen.

Vince and Denis Murphy stepped off the Seeker at the same time, 3:40 p.m.

John Moyer and Crowell went in 10 minutes later. Crowell lugged along his video camera.

Vince and Murphy landed on the Doria just as Bill Cleary approached the Seeker's anchor line to begin his ascent.

The three friends shared a light-hearted and ironic take on the dangers they faced underwater. They all paused dramatically as they drew together at the anchor line. Stare-down. After a few beats, Murphy broke the silence.

"You OK?" he said to Cleary in a small, mock-fearful voice.

Cleary erupted in laughter, and so did Vince.

"Yeah," Cleary said. "I'm OK."

Vince and Murphy swam to the garage-door-sized entry in the hull known as Gimbel's Hole, blowtorched open in 1981 by treasure hunter and underwater photographer Peter Gimbel. Once inside, they made their way back to a stairwell and swam toward the ship's face-down starboard side.

They approached a cracked-open closet, which appeared to them as a diamond-shaped opening framed in jagged edges. Inside lay a 10-foot-long stainless steel rake another diver had fashioned.

Clouds of microscopic plankton settled around the two men as they worked. The rake tinkled as Murphy pulled it through the muck. Flashes of white gleamed through the swirling silt. It was china.

Murphy grabbed a celery plate, placed it into his goodie bag and looked at his dive timer. It said they had been on the bottom for 12 minutes. The two men had planned a 20-minute visit to the wreck.

Suddenly, Vince reached up to Murphy's face and inexplicably ripped the regulator out of his mouth. A column of air bubbles exploded between them.

Murphy grabbed a back-up mouthpiece bungee- corded to his equipment harness and slammed it between his teeth. Then, the 6-foot-1 weightlifter turned to Vince.

Like a rodeo rider taking hold, Murphy wrapped his right hand around a strap on Vince's harness.

Six inches separated their faces.

Vince pointed at Murphy's back. Murphy didn't understand. He drew his right index finger across his throat.

"You out of air?" he screamed through his regulator.

No answer from Vince.

"You out of air?" Murphy repeated. "You out of air? You out of air?"

Vince shook his head furiously.

"No!" he shouted. "No, no, no, no!"

Vince's eyes were strangely calm. He again stabbed a finger toward Murphy's back. Murphy worried that he had an air leak in his equipment.

There was only one thing to do. Murphy yelled one more time.

"Let's get the ----------- out of here!"

With Vince in the lead, they swam out of the wreck in one minute. Then Vince headed aft.

But he was swimming the wrong way.

The Seeker's anchor line was in the opposite direction, shackled to the bow of the Doria.

Maybe Vince was headed to the Sea Inn's anchor line, which was tied in back there. But Vince passed within two feet of it and kept going.

Murphy stopped and grabbed the Sea Inn's line. He dropped down to the hull.

Murphy was perplexed but not overly concerned. Was Vince trying to find the Seeker's anchor line? Topside, it was bad form to come up on the wrong boat.

John Moyer and Dan Crowell appeared. Moyer signaled to Murphy: "You OK?"

Murphy gave him the OK sign, but he knew he needed to start heading back up.

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