Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Wednesday, 7 a.m. Sergeant John Cummings, the 44-year-old head of NYPD Scuba, is giving a brief tour of the inside of Scuba HQ, an algae-colored three-story hovel in an industrial wasteland set between a Snapple factory and a cul-de-sac of pothole-and-graffiti-strewn parking lots. It's a no-frills barracks with the feel of an unfinished basement; while waiting for orders, a handful of men jockey for position on a La-Z-Boy and a few benches in a make-shift rec room. In the hallway between the rec room and a storage locker, there are photos showing divers searching under piers for bombs, as Scuba must do when presidents and dignitaries come to town. Nearby, there's a small shrine devoted to the unit's work on TWA Flight 800, which exploded in midair and plummeted into the 150-foot-deep waters of East Moriches, Long Island, on July 17, 1996. One picture shows Newt Gingrich posing with the team after the cleanup efforts.
Cummings, who's been in charge for three years, hails from the John Wayne school of storytelling. He starts dishing slow, then picks up speed. "Navy ran the show," he says, "but we did the first dives. Couple of their guys got the bends on that job. I always say: better bent than dead." Since the explosion was considered a possible terrorist action, Flight 800 fell under federal jurisdiction, but the job was so vast—the salvage operation lasted four months—that NYPD Scuba was called in for support. "That's gotta be one of the great jobs in the history of the free world," Cummings recalls fondly. "When we first got the call, our hearts were pumping. By the time we got there it was pretty gruesome—airline wreckage, fuel vapors, and mangled bodies floating in water."
Laconic and gentlemanly, Cummings is a baby-faced 18-year vet with thick sandy-brown hair that stands up perfectly straight. He's wearing the standard T-shirt and boots and has the wiry body you'd associate with a triathlete or marathoner; in fact, he competes regularly in national races in his free time. "I've always been a little bit of a water rat," he says of his childhood on Long Island's Great South Bay. Like most of his team, he projects a blue-collar stoicism mixed with a fatalistic sense of humor.
Police officers who want a job with Scuba are often certified divers who think of diving as a hobby. Most of the current team members are hard-core exercise freaks; some enjoy running a quick ten miles before reporting to duty. Officers working the streets of, say, the South Bronx may spot the NYPD Scuba boat circumnavigating Manhattan on a hot summer day and think the officers on board have it easy. They would be wrong. Some find this out when they come down to take Cummings's infamous entry test.
"Most teams throughout the country aren't real stringent," Cummings says, raking a hand through his hair. "They pretty much take anybody willing to dive. We're very stringent." The test, given once every two years, begins with a physical and a written exam. Then there's a fitness test.
"You have to do a minimum of 12 chin-ups, at least 34 push-ups, and run a mile in less than 6:48," Cummings explains. "Then we bring you to the pool—you gotta swim 500 yards in less than 12 minutes." That's followed by a weight-belt swim and a pool-length underwater swim. After that, the real fun begins: "We, um, stretch you out a bit," Cummings admits. "We pull on your mask, undo your tank, spin you around a bit, black out your viz. We like to see how you handle stress underwater. Last test we gave, 56 guys tried out. Four passed."
Passing the test is no guarantee that you can handle the work, a daunting combination of athletic exertion and emotional duress. Rookies are usually on the job six months before becoming official members of the unit. As the team walks toward the boat for another day on patrol, Cummings says, "I had one guy that lasted a day. We had a homicide in Brooklyn—body with no head. Guy said, 'I don't think this is for me.'"
McLaughlin, Collins, and Pellegrino overhear the end of the conversation. "Remember that guy who had to go to the bathroom every time a job came in?" Collins asks. "We were diving this car in the river, and he's like, 'Wayne, my stomach.' Guy always had to take a crap. I finally just said, 'Get the fuck out.'"
Pellegrino shakes his head. "See, that's why these guys are old and leathered," he says. "They're the real leatherback frogmen. They got no fear. If you fear, you shouldn't be here."