Law and Water

The leatherback frogmen of the NYPD Scuba Squad patrol a hellish world beyond noir, where body parts abound, the water's filthy, and mob victims wear concrete shoes. And get this—they love it.

   

 

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.


   
   
 
 

The New York Police Department is currently made up of some 37,000 men and women. Its Scuba Unit, created in 1967, has just 30 members, all of them men. NYPD proper addresses aboveground crime; NYPD Scuba covers what happens underwater.

The unit's jurisdiction includes the entire aquatic Big Apple, all five juicy boroughs of it. This means pulling people (live, dead, rotted beyond recognition) and evidence (guns, knives, automobiles, limbs) out of some of the worst water in the world—the pungent rivers of the Bronx; the polluted creeks of Brooklyn and Queens; the frozen golf-course ponds in the hinterlands of Staten Island; fetid sewers; even the water towers atop Manhattan skyscrapers. It's a line of work that requires powerful intestinal fortitude. It's not just a job; it's a claustrophobic, god-awful ordeal. And these guys—as they'll be the first to tell you—are the best in the business. "Almost every [police dive] team faces hardship," says Walt "Butch" Hendrick, a former Navy corporal whose Upstate New York company, Lifeguard Systems, trains law enforcement personnel across the country in water rescue. "The big difference is NYPD is exposed to an enormous amount of hazard."

New York water is a special brew of ferocious currents, unforgiving temperatures, treacherous murk, and apocalyptic pollution. In the memorable formulation of Dr. Charles Martinez, the unit's physician, certain New York coastal waters have a bacterial content consistent with "liquid stool." Water pollution was at an all-time high in the early '70s; since then, massive cleanup efforts have improved conditions and restored some aquatic life, but the water still has a long way to go. A 1998 EPA study that included the New York City region listed 104 local waters (from creeks to bays) and found impairments of ten varieties. The Hudson, for instance, boasts high levels of PCBs and fecal coliform bacteria, and the report recommended that further clean-up be made a high priority. The East River, according to Peter Sattler, principal environmental planner with the Interstate Sanitation Commission, which monitors local water quality, is by volume almost entirely sewage-treatment water, pumped from five upriver plants. "It's not drinking-water standards," Sattler says, "but it sometimes meets bathing-beach criteria." Which means you can swim in it and not immediately die.

I first saw NYPD Scuba in action last winter, after happening upon a recovery dive for the body of a woman who'd committed suicide by jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. Like most jumpers, she'd died on impact. ("I know about five or ten jumpers that survived because we were right there," says one member of the unit, noting that many times Scuba is called to the scene before a person actually jumps. Surviving a jump "depends on how you land and how lucky you get.") I watched as two police divers plunged into the frigid East River and quickly collected the corpse.

Plucking a jumper from the East River illustrates just one of NYPD Scuba's concerns; last year, it participated in more than 1,000 water missions, 32 of which were rescue operations in which lives were saved. On a given day, it may engage in emergency rescue ops (like capsized boats and downed helicopters), drug searches, and blackwater weapons recovery. No two days are the same.

Each officer spends every third day of duty at Floyd Bennet Field in nearby Rockaway Beach, where Scuba maintains an air-sea rescue team with two divers and a helicopter pilot. On call 24-7, in emergency situations they can reach any local body of water in 11 minutes. As I discovered on many occasions, both on the water and on land, this constant state of readiness makes the men antsy. They get irritable when nothing is happening. As if to compensate, they trade stories—hair-raising, grisly, sometimes mind-boggling stories.


   
   
 
 

"A few years ago, we nailed this freighter up from Bogotá," says Officer Kevin Collins, a mustachioed, white-crew-cutted, 28-year veteran in his late forties. It's a few days after the weapons recovery search, and Collins is telling one of Scuba's favorite tales as the squad's four-seater launch prepares to depart from headquarters in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The Scuba Unit, which belongs to NYPD's Harbor Department (Harbor mainly monitors what goes on on top of the water), has three boats. Near the slip, there's a flower box of well-tended geraniums that suggests someone with a sensitive side.

"I dove under and found four guys hidden inside the rudder compartment, this tiny space the size of my fucking kitchen," Collins continues. "They had 365 pounds up there, enough cocaine to supply the entire Upper East Side." The rudder compartment, an extremely loud and tight space, Collins explains, sits just above the waterline; it can only be inspected from underwater.

"Strung up in hammocks and rubber rafts," he adds. "All the way up from Columbia with wetsuits and waterproof bags. Boy, were they surprised to see us."

Pellegrino brings out three foam cups of steaming coffee from HQ. The cops all have on navy-blue NYPD Scuba T-shirts, navy-blue cargo pants, and black lace-up boots (except for Collins, who wears Teva sandals). Aside from Collins and Pellegrino, Officer Wayne McLaughlin, a barrel-chested 42-year-old and a 14-year veteran with Scuba, is also on duty today. Their assignment is to inspect the vast underbelly of a Greek freighter anchored in New York Bay for possible signs of contraband. In all cases, Scuba officers carry nine-millimeter pistols; when they dive, they store them on board the launch. No current member of the unit has ever had to use his gun. This will be a labor-intensive, low-adrenaline job, and the men give off the vaguely uninterested vibe of professional wrestlers at a poetry reading. Rescue scenarios are always preferred. "It's a rip to jump into current," Pellegrino says.

Pellegrino is one of several officers who have been assigned to Scuba since the beginning of summer, when local water activity heats up. Since he's not yet a permanent member of the unit, he may have to return to dry land at the end of his tour. Like most cops who try out for the team, Pellegrino has long been a recreational diver—his special interest is "trimix," an oxygen-nitrogen-helium blend that lets him spend extra time on the bottom. He's dying to stay, but the unit is exceedingly difficult to break into. "If they throw me back in the car," he says, "I go back in the car. You gotta be a big boy.

"Out here, man," he continues, taking in a lungful of salty air as he steers the boat out into the bay, "there's none of that he-hit-me-no-she-hit-me shit." With his free hand, he opens a paper bag and removes a pouch of chocolate pudding. There's a note inside from his wife. Pellegrino reads it out loud: "Thanks for a great weekend, baby." He grins and dry-humps the air.

A moment later, Collins squints at some commercial activity on an approaching pier. He frowns and asks Pellegrino to slow down.

"Shallow here, Frankie," McLaughlin says, looking over Pellegrino's shoulder after he comes up from below deck.

"I'm only doing 15 rpm," Pellegrino protests.

"It's not the rpm," McLaughlin replies. "You gotta look at the wake."

Pellegrino feigns a wounded look. "You know how many times I think about cutting his air hose?" he says to me. McLaughlin just smiles.

After passing beneath the gilded torch of the Statue of Liberty, the boat rounds a bend, heads toward Lower New York Bay, and falls into the shadow of an enormous spanking-new tanker called the Antipolis. U.S. Customs is already on board.

"That's a beaut," Pellegrino says. "What's she moving?"

"Could be anything," McLaughlin answers. "Iron ore, sugar, anything that comes in bulk."

"Like drugs," Collins says, peering through binoculars. "No bodies jumping."

"Must be clean," McLaughlin says. "Sometimes Customs gets people running right off the fucking deck."

McLaughlin lumbers slowly up a service ladder like a town marshal. This will be an easy job. Too easy. Pellegrino switches back into storytelling mode as we wait for McLaughlin's return.

"Searching for kids is the toughest," he says, digging out the last of his pudding. "I had one guy, 13 years old. Still in his swimsuit and all rigor mortis and shit." The boy had been wading at Orchard Beach, in the Bronx, where the bottom suddenly drops from four to 12 feet. Even in strong currents, a lifeless body has a tendency to sink straight down. "I found him on the bottom, like seven feet from where he went in."

"City kids don't give a fuck how dirty the water is," Collins adds. "Day like this, the river's beautiful. You only get the floating shit after a storm. They gotta look where they're jumping. I had a kid who dove in and got impaled by a rusty stanchion."

A few minutes later McLaughlin returns. They'll need to give the ship a quick look as a formality. Pellegrino begins suiting up; he'll do a drift dive, letting the current pull him along as he examines the hull.

"Hey, I did a high-altitude dive once," Collins suddenly says enthusiastically.

"What?" Pellegrino says, lifting his mask off his face.

"Sixty-five stories up."

Pellegrino looks confused. Waves plash against the side of the boat.

"He's just being comical," McLaughlin, who has heard the story before, deadpans.

"This guy was burgling an office building—one of those high-rise jobs," Collins explains. "He was stealing pocketbooks and whatnot."

The culprit, an office worker, was robbing his female colleagues, but no one could figure out where he was stashing the purses. Turned out he was dumping the pilfered bags into the building's water tank.

"That water was so clean, I just looked down—there was at least a hundred fucking purses in there!"


   
   
 
 

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."


   
   
 
 

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.


   
   
Saturday, 5 a.m. Sheepshead Bay, a tiny Brooklyn neighborhood that's more New England fishing village than Saturday Night Fever. On a dock surrounded by fishing boats, Bill Reddan, 60, NYPD Scuba's first official lead diver, is leafing through his photo album like a proud papa. If there's any reason why the men of NYPD Scuba love to tell sea tales, it may have something to do with Reddan: When it comes to bloodcurdling stories, he's the original Ancient Mariner.

"Here's a picture of our first air-sea rescue, in '75," says Reddan, who retired from NYPD Scuba in 1986 at the age of 46. "We had four people go under in a tug. My buddy was the first guy to jump out of the chopper. Guy weighed 200 and change, plus his 40-pound suit and 30-pound tank. When he jumped, fuckin' chopper nearly crashed. This is me trying to find a state trooper somebody rolled in a rug and dumped by Randalls Island. This here's the Harlem River. An hour in there and you're covered with snails."

Having once brought up bodies for the NYPD, Reddan now escorts local divers to New York's rich collection of historic wrecks. He has a drumlike belly and flamingo legs. What's left of his white hair is regulation ex-Marine trim. Told that Sergeant Cummings sends his regards, Reddan smiles and says, "Yeah, I diapered him."

Reddan, who grew up in Sheepshead Bay, began his police career as a beat cop in Brooklyn. Back then, the department had a policy of not putting officers in jeopardy for dead bodies; commercial divers were hired instead. But like Cummings, Reddan grew up as a water rat; before joining the Marines, he was a champion free-diver. When the NYPD started Scuba in '67, the work was part-time. Reddan was promoted to lead diver after his supervisor jumped off a boat, caught his wedding ring on a screw, ripped off a finger, and retired.

"I saw a lot of weird stuff," he says, a nostalgic smile softening his weathered face. "Haitian voodoo shit—crates with eggs and feathers. One time, we found a jar with a heart in it—that turned out to be some student's science experiment. Another time, under the Verrazano Bridge, I pulled this body out by the armpits and the guy broke in half. I said, 'What the fuck?' and went down for the legs. Turns out, they were in a tomato crate filled with concrete. That happens a lot."

At the end of his career, Reddan had a chance to hunt down a series of mob victims. "We heard there were body parts all over the city. We got word that a head had been dropped in English Kills in Queens. I went down and came up with a box, but no head." This happened just a few days before Reddan was going to retire. It was Halloween, and he and some others came up with a practical joke. "We had this barge with a hole in it," he says. "We got a guy to put his head through it, poured ketchup on him, and covered him with a towel." Reddan called over the two detectives on the case, told them he'd found the head, and lifted the towel. "The guys almost fainted," he says with a laugh. They never found the head they were looking for.


   
   
It's another sunny New York morning, and NYPD Scuba is back, preparing to resume the search for the missing homicide weapon in the Hudson River. Mud-crawling is slow, tiresome work, and everyone is in a surly mood. There's some sense that this is an exercise in futility.

"They don't even know the date the guy threw it in," McLaughlin complains.

Collins says, "Yeah, and there's a ship called the Titanic. It sunk somewhere." He spits into the water.

McLaughlin and Collins tie the boat to a stanchion at the North River sewage plant, one of 17 facilities that discharge sewage-treatment water into the Hudson. The infamous North River plant is a classic New York creation: a sewage facility with a public park built on top. Over cyclone fencing there are basketball courts, trees; curious kids stare down, trying to figure out why the police are docking beneath them.

Cummings and Collins walk over to huddle with detectives. Over on the Jersey side of the river, beyond the George Washington Bridge, the white cliffs of the Palisades look like a distant glacier. A large CNN billboard above the West Side Highway proclaims, "You Are What You Know." Around the boat, tiny fish navigate among miniature oil slicks, leaves, a floating Ho-Hos wrapper, and a wave-tossed porn mag. Pellegrino's sitting up front in the bow, eating another chocolate pudding.

An hour later, Pellegrino and McLaughlin are in the river, working what's called a pattern line, a 100-foot rope that is stretched along the bottom and secured with a grappling hook on each end. "We go up and down the line, keeping it as taut as possible," Collins explains as we look for the divers' bubbles. "When you get to the end, the lead diver moves it a few feet over, and they start all over again." It's a tedious process, but not without its rewards. "When you're looking for a gun, all you're thinking about is what you might feel," he says. "But we'll come across other guns, knives, shopping carts, fences, cars, anything you can imagine. Bodies. Recovery's fucked. You got rebar, typewriters, you name it. I love bodies—they're big. You can't miss 'em."

After a couple of hours, the men return to the boat empty-handed, frustrated, and hungry (they'll find the gun two days from now). As we set off for lunch at a waterfront deli in Hoboken, Pellegrino tells me he has one last point he wants to bring up: money.

"We should be getting special time," he declares. "Put that in your article. We do something the average guy on patrol can't do. First thing other cops say is, 'You jump in that scum? What the fuck's a matter with you?'" Unlike their state police scuba colleagues, who get a $25 bonus for every day they dive, NYPD divers receive no hardship pay.

"Police officers all make the same money," NYPD spokesman Detective Walter Burnes tells me when I ask him about the pay scale later. "Only way to get a change is to get promoted. That's just the way it works. If a guy who's out on patrol every day gets shot, who's to say he's got an easier job than a guy on the bomb squad?" Point taken. "Yeah," Cummings acknowledges when I relay this information to him. "It's an unfortunate footnote."

As we speed down the Hudson toward Hoboken, Pellegrino makes it clear that he's resigned to the pay policy, too. Clearly, these guys aren't in it for the money. "Bottom line?" he says. "I get to do a hobby and get paid for it. How many guys can say that? If the alarm goes off right now and I jump out of the helicopter and save someone? Boom—that's a rip. That's a lot of fun. Other days, you gotta look for a gun, and dive, dive, dive, dive."

He cranes his neck at a plane passing overhead. "That ain't so fun."   

Andrew Essex, a freelance writer who lives in New York City, has written for the New York Times, the New Yorker, and Rolling Stone.


 
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