Sunday, 5:20 p.m. A dinghy carrying two men who can't swim capsizes just off the 79th Street Boat Basin in the Hudson River, and a witness calls it in. Two NYPD Scuba divers, who've donned their drysuits in the cramped helicopter cockpit, jump some 20 feet into the river. After several minutes in water that resembles Yoo-Hoo, they locate the bodies, face-down on the bottom. The recovery, it should be noted, takes place without the benefit of sight. Of the many difficulties Scuba faces, nothing rekindles vestigial childhood terror quite like the concept of zero visibility.
"Zero viz means holding a 50,000-candlepower light in your hand and not knowing it's on," explains Butch Hendrick of Lifeguard Systems. "You can't see your own gauge. Running out of air becomes an issue." Then there are the hazards, things like jagged debris. "These guys can suddenly find themselves in a forest of daggers dunked in creosote," Hendrick says. "It's pitch-black. Imagine finding a body in that."
Actually, I can't. When it comes to diving, I definitely have fear. Many fears. I was certified in the Virgin Islands, in the crystalline warmth of the Caribbean, in a comfortable wetsuit; I knew the only way I'd ever begin to understand what the men of NYPD Scuba went through was to dive in low-viz water in a drysuit. Since for insurance reasons NYPD Scuba won't allow civilians to dive with officers, I found an instructor named Cal Azzouni, who runs a dive shop in the East Village, and signed up for a drysuit course. Cal was unwilling to get anywhere near any of the local waters ("I'm not diving in that shit"), so he suggested we drive an hour and a half west to a flooded limestone quarry near Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Squeezing into a drysuit is like inserting yourself into a heavy-duty body condom. You must coat your wrists with K-Y Jelly to wiggle through the tight openings. It requires flexibility, strength, patience, and planning; you can't urinate in a drysuit. There is much yanking and difficult zippering. It took me half an hour. NYPD divers put on their suits in about five minutes.
One of my flippers fell off right after Cal and I entered the water. We felt around—nothing. He suggested we go ahead with the dive, holding hands and sweeping the bottom, but we'd already kicked up a sandstorm of sediment; I couldn't see my hand in front of my face. My lone flipper flapped pathetically as Cal began pulling me out deeper. Blind and disoriented, I felt myself beginning to hyperventilate. I was experiencing aquatic claustrophobia. I had no idea where I was. I shook Cal off and fled, unadvisedly, to the surface, hoping I wasn't down deep enough to contract the bends on the way up. I spit out my regulator and started wheezing.
I was in less than five feet of water.