Deep Blues

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, July 1999

Deep Blues
Forty fathoms down, divers have been dying on the wreck of the Andrea Doria. Will this be the worst summer ever?

A Mystery Endures
Not long after we noted the current proliferation of expeditions aimed at tackling unsolved mysteries ("Sledgepuller, P.I.," May), one of the ventures we mentioned met with astonishing success: On May 1, Eric Simonson and his team of six top mountaineers located George Mallory's frozen body some 2,000 feet below the summit on Mount Everest's North Ridge. Several pieces of evidence, such as a pair of sunglasses stashed neatly in Mallory's breast pocket and the absence of a British flag in his pack, suggest that the English mountaineer and his partner, Andrew Irvine, may have attained the peak late in the day on June 8, 1924ù29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were credited with the first ascentùonly to suffer a fatal fall while descending in the dark. Buttressing this hypothesis was team member Conrad Anker's success in free-climbing the ridge's Second Step, provingùat least in theoryùthat Mallory and Irvine could have made it to the top. Other clues, however, such as the fact that there were no summit rocks in Mallory's pack, only deepened a riddle that, in the absence of definitive proofùMallory's notebook or the expedition's cameraùmay never be solved. If so, it's an enigma that some find oddly reassuring. "The mystery is no clearer than before, and I'm happy I'm going to be able to continue living with it," says Tom Hornbein, a member of the first American team to summit Everest, in 1963. "It's all part of the marvelous lore of climbing."

There are three reasons why divers of the world's shipwrecks consider the Andrea Doria a death trap. First, depth: The sunken Italian luxury liner lies 240 feet below sea level, a point at which breathing compressed air can induce mind-numbing nitrogen narcosis and trigger seizures. Second, the surrounding sea: The waters off the coast of Nantucket, where the ship rests, are bone-chillingly cold; the currents are strong enough to wrench the mask off a diver's face; swirling silt can suddenly snuff out all visibility. And finally, there's the ship itself: While its interior passages are choked with a spaghetti-tangle of electrical wiring, the exterior is draped with acres of lost commercial fishing nets, making it an underwater labyrinth through which a confused diver can wander aimlessly until he runs out of air.

It was factor three that killed Richard Roost last summer. Or at least that's the theory.

In early July 1998, the 46-year-old wreck diver from Ann Arbor, Michigan, was deep inside the Doria when something went wrong. Crew members on the boat that Roost had chartered speculate that after growing disoriented, he began hyperventilating, blacked out, and drowned. A day later, searchers swimming through what was once the first-class cocktail lounge found his body floating facedown less than 20 feet from a large double-door exit in the ship. Roost was the ninth victim to die exploring the Doria in the last two decades, as well as the second of three divers claimed by the ship last summerùthe deadliest season on record. Experts fear that this summer's diving season, which began in earnest last month and stretches through August, may be even more deadlyùa prospect that underscores the Doria's lethal allure while highlighting the potential perils of a new boom in recreational deep-wreck diving. "The Doria is the most famous modern shipwreck in history next to the Titanic. It combines all of the appeal of wreck diving and all of the dangers," explains John Moyer, an amateur salvager who has completed more than 100 Doria dives in the past 17 years. "No other wreck can make that claim, but you need training and a lot of experience before completing the dive."

Built at a cost of $30 million in 1953, the liner was a 700-foot-long, 11-story floating art gallery replete with ornate tapestries, rare wood-inlay panels, and ceramic reliefs that recalled the opulence of the great transatlantic giants of the early twentieth century. Boasting 22 watertight compartments, it was advertised, in an eerie echo of the Titanic, as unsinkable. But amid dense fog on the night of July 25, 1956, the Doria was broadsided by the Swedish passenger shipStockholm. It took 11 hours for her to sink, and by early the next morning the Grand Dame of the Sea lay on her starboard side at the bottom of the Atlantic. Forty-six of nearly 1,600 passengers and crew perished, while the rest were rescued by another ocean liner.

Air bubbles were still gurgling up from the ship the next day when the first salvagers headed down to reconnoiter the remains. In the decades since, she has become a magnet for divers drawn by her colorful history, her relative accessibility, and her store of riches (there are still several safes aboard, including one used by the ship's purser for passengers' valuables). Though much of the perishable artwork has been destroyed by saltwater, divers still bring up hoards of china, glass, and silverware. In the process, however, they're also raising some disturbing safety questions.

The Doria is known as the Mount Everest of wreck diving mainly because during the 1960s it was one of the world's most difficult dives, but there's another parallel too: Like its Himalayan counterpart, it has become a magnet for relatively inexperienced voyeurs. This is due in part to new technology. Helium-based gas mixtures, first developed by the U.S. Navy and later used by commercial divers to counter the deleterious effects of extreme depth, now enable amateurs to descend below 200 feet. This area is calledùshades of Everest againùthe death zone, because of the oxygen toxicity and nitrogen narcosis that set in at this depth. Another factor is the extent to which charter boats have responded to the burgeoning interest. A decade ago, two companies ran two trips a year. This season, four or five will offer more than 20 trips.

All the clients who pay for this sort of adrenaline rush are expert divers, but many still lack experience on deep-wreck dives. Roost, for example, had never dived the Doria, or any other large, complicated ship at comparable depths. "Last year's deaths," says Gary Gentile, who has been diving the Doria since 1974 and has written some 15 books about shipwrecks, "were a wake-up call for those lulled into a false sense of confidence."

Few have heeded the warning, howeverùperhaps because the Doria's treasures hold such powerful allure. This year Moyer, who recovered two ceramic friezes worth several hundred thousand dollars in 1993, has his sights set on the forward bell and a prototype car made for Chrysler in Turin. Although Moyer was granted exclusive salvage rights to the ship after her insurers declined to launch recovery efforts, he's interested mainly in the large items and readily permits other divers to snatch up whatever trinkets they find. Particular favorites are gold-rimmed plates and cups that bear the shipping line's logo and can fetch up to $700 apiece.

Paradoxically, as many experts fret about safety, the deep-diving boom seems poised to expand to even more treacherous wrecks. Indeed, the Doria itself is now regarded as a training ground for an elite group of amateurs who have set their sights on barely explored prizes such as the Lusitania, lying off the coast of Ireland in 300 feet of seawater, and the Britannic, the Titanic's sister ship, which rests 380 feet down off the coast of Greece. In the process, however, veterans fear that a crucial point may be lost. "The most important artifact you'll ever bring home," says Billy Deans, a technical diving pioneer who pulled the body of his best friend off the Doria in 1985, "is yourself."

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