Just after dawn on a New York Monday morning, a cop named Frank Pellegrino sits on the gunwale of a speeding boat, yanking on a pair of flippers as two burly men guide the battered, 36-foot launch up the lower Hudson River. It's a quiet day on the water, and as the sun warms the air, cool mists spray the men's faces. It might be the perfect morning for a cruise, but Pellegrino's not out for a joyride. Not today.
"It's gonna be a nightmare to dive," he says. "So much fucking crap here." He looks down at the water and grimaces as he finishes zipping himself into his drysuit. "Junior guy on the boat always has to search first," he adds. "That's policy."
A 31-year-old Long Islander with a deeply tanned face and a neck the width of an oak trunk, Pellegrino is a junior officer with the New York City Police Department's Scuba Unit, the elite rescue-and-recovery squad of the country's largest police force. Pellegrino and his fellow cops have been summoned to recover a gun reportedly used two years ago in a homicide—a gun that now lies somewhere on the bottom of the Hudson. The shooter only recently admitted throwing the weapon into the river and has provided limited directions as to where. In contrast to the many heroic and horrific assignments that NYPD Scuba must perform—from saving lives to retrieving bodies—weapons recovery is considered a relatively tedious job. In this case, the officers are quick to point out, "a shit job," since this stretch of river lies beside a sewage treatment plant.
As we make our way upstream toward Riverside Park, Pellegrino revisits some of NYPD Scuba's greatest hits. Between profane musings on women and money, he reminisces about heads from headless bodies, drowned kids, dead dogs, toxic waste, zero-visibility water, parasite poisoning, inadvertently swallowed sewage, suicide victims, and the horrors that divers encountered during the recovery of TWA Flight 800 back in '96. Like everyone who copes with a life-threatening profession, the members of NYPD Scuba have developed certain defense mechanisms. For these guys, the first line of defense is storytelling—the more shocking, the better.
"I guess I'm a little bit of a ghoul," Pellegrino admits, warming to the subject. "I always wanted to see gory crime scenes. On regular patrol, I definitely saw more bodies—I had one old guy who dropped dead on his radiator and basically cooked. But floaters? Man, that's something I wasn't accustomed to.
"When a body decomposes in water, it becomes completely disfigured," he continues. "We had one guy that blew up like a pillow. He was wearing a watch with a metal band. When I took off the band, his fuckin' skin came off with it. Had another vic off Jamaica Bay. Guy was stuffed in one of these big tool-boxes you see hanging off a crane. They'd put him in, chained it up, and dumped 'm in. That was a Mafia job.
"Once you smell a decomposed human," Pellegrino adds, searching for his mask, "you never forget it. That smell can stay in your nostrils for three days." End of story.
Even a ghoul, it seems, has his limits.