HOW WE DIVE
by Mike Swift
Hartford Courant, November 2000 reprint
HOW WE DIVE;
Joel Silverstein, growing up in Brooklyn in the '60s, saw those silver-screen skin divers and knew right then what he wanted to be. And apart from one unhappy attempt to make a living in insurance, that's pretty much all he's ever done.
Over the years, Silverstein climbed the ladder of the diving fraternity, a path that took him ever deeper into the sea to ever more risky places - to places where, until a few short years ago, only dead men went. He became an instructor, a consultant, a writer, an Internet webmaster - anything to make a living off diving. Diving for him wasn't about recreation. It was about exploration. He published a deep-wreck diving magazine called "Sub Aqua." Its motto: "No Pretty Fishies."
Now 41, he's found a woman to share his life who is or has been an assistant harbor master in Bridgeport, a boat captain, a hyperbaric chamber technician and, like her husband, a highly accomplished deep wreck diver. If they choose to, Silverstein and his wife, Kathy Weydig, can serve a whole meal on china they have recovered from the Andrea Doria, the Italian luxury ocean liner that went to the bottom of the Atlantic in 1956, marking the sunset of the glamour era of transatlantic ship travel.
Silverstein is a deep diver "because I can't be an astronaut," he said. "I can do it, and I do it really, really, really well, and I get to do things that 99 and 99-hundredths percent of the world never gets to do."
Now, we are hurtling down I-95 from Silverstein's home in Bridgeport. I am making a conscious effort not to look at the speedometer, or to think about the twin tanks charged with thousands of pounds of pressure lying in the bed of the truck behind my back. It's Friday night, and we're going diving.
Little more than an hour from Bridgeport, we arrive at the Wahoo, a dive boat anchored on the south shore of Long Island. Tomorrow at dawn, the Wahoo will pull out of her slip bound for a patch of water above the USS San Diego, a 500-foot-long Navy cruiser that hit a mine during World War I and went to the bottom.
Next summer, Silverstein hopes to become one of a very few divers to circumnavigate the Andrea Doria on a single dive, using a torpedo-like electric scooter to orbit the 697-foot-long wreck. The liner lies about 230 feet below the surface, a full 100 feet deeper than is officially considered the maximum "safe" limit for recreational scuba diving. For Silverstein, this dive to the San Diego will be practice for next year's circumnavigation of the Doria.
Once he stows his dive gear aboard the still-deserted Wahoo, Silverstein begins writing out decompression tables on the plastic tape he sticks to his electric scooter and the handle of his dive light. The rows of numbers are Silverstein's road map back to the surface - telling him the depth and time for decompression stops he must make based on the time he spends at the bottom. Technical divers like Silverstein customize their own breathing gases, mixing helium, oxygen and nitrogen in various concentrations, mixtures that allow them to reach depths where breathing normal air might incapacitate or kill them. They have software that designs their own decompression tables, based on those customized gas mixtures, to allow them to go far deeper and stay much longer than recreational divers.
Another technical wreck diver, an investment banker from Stamford named Bruce Gehrlein, arrives at the Wahoo and begins loading his gear onboard.
"I went to the Wahoo Web site, and there's Tony's picture there - `In Memory,' " Gehrlein tells Silverstein as he secures his tanks to the rail. "I thought that he was killed in a car crash or something - this guy didn't die diving. No way."
The San Diego is only about 110 feet down, and Silverstein has dived it literally hundreds of times. But that doesn't mean it's not a challenging and sometimes dangerous dive, especially if a diver penetrates the wreck. The incident Gehrlein is referring to is proof of that: Silverstein's close friend Tony Maffatone had died on the San Diego just weeks before. Maffatone was one of the first divers off the Wahoo on the morning of Aug. 2. Not long after his black, helmeted head vanished below the water, his body floated feet-first to the surface off the Wahoo's stern, a breech stillbirth from the sea. He had ditched his custom-built breathing gear on the bottom, trying to make it back to the surface. Nobody saw what happened down there. Maffatone had been diving alone, self-sufficient and without a diving buddy, as many technical divers do. One thing Silverstein hopes to find on this dive to the San Diego is a clue as to what happened.
In the right mood, Silverstein can admit he's just a little bit pissed off at his dead friend. Maffatone had made a mistake, had met a problem he couldn't solve.
"Tony died," Silverstein told me the next day in the truck as we drove back from Long Island. "You're not supposed to die."
It was foggy south of Nantucket on the night of July 25, 1956, as the Andrea Doria entered the busy shipping lanes that sailors called "the Times Square of the Atlantic." Bristling with the newest marine technology - radar, loran, automatic pilots, gyrocompasses - the luxurious Doria made over 20 knots though the dense fog, doing the last 200-mile strut into New York.
"A ship is a wonderfully solid thing, making sense in a shaky world," a newspaper columnist had written after watching the liner depart New York a few years before. "It's nearly impossible to sink one . . . it is ladies like the Andrea Doria that I kiss in print."
On radar, the Doria tracked another liner, the Stockholm, outbound from New York. They couldn't hit each other, of course. Technology would prevent any danger of collision; it had to. But it didn't. In a fateful string of bad decisions, both ships turned to avoid each other but chose courses which aimed the Stockholm directly into the starboard side of the Doria. The Stockholm's bow, reinforced for breaking ice, stabbed deep into the Doria, killing 51 people on the two ships. Eleven hours later, the Italian liner rolled on her side and went to the bottom, watched by reporters flying above. It was among the biggest news stories of the year, along with Elvis, Ike's re-election, the Suez Crisis and the death of the last surviving Union veteran of the Civil War.
There were divers on the Doria a day later. They reported dream images, a Sleeping Beauty at the bottom of the sea - looking in through the portholes, they saw luggage, furniture and blankets floating through the liner. To the divers, the black-hulled ship looked immaculate, as if she were still on her maiden voyage. Air bubbled out of the steel carapace as if the lady were sighing about her fate.
Then, apart from a few visits, the dive lights went dark. As the years went by, the currents ripping at the bottom of the Atlantic began the glacial process of pulling the Doria down into the bottom of the sea, the way a retreating wave on the beach washes the sand from under your feet.
About 20 years ago, the divers began to return in greater numbers. The first visits were quick and risky, furtive Indiana Jones forays using tanks that were too small, breathing compressed air that made divers so intoxicated from nitrogen narcosis that they felt like they had just downed a tray of martinis on the Doria's promenade deck.
But technology - that technology again - got better. The tanks got bigger. Wreck divers began breathing Tri-Mix, a mixture of helium, oxygen and nitrogen that greatly reduced nitrogen narcosis at depth, and enriched oxygen mixtures that slashed the decompression time needed to safely purge dissolved nitrogen out of a diver's tissues.
And with better technology, people started dying - 12 of them since 1981, and five since 1998. The lady of the sea that newspaper columnists once wanted to kiss had become a witch, or, in the minds of some divers, a rhyming word that begins with a B.
To read the official Coast Guard reports on the recent deaths on the Andrea Doria is to journey into a fearful place.
A diver inside the wreck inexplicably rips out his buddy's regulator, before swimming off alone into the green depths.
Another diver gets a little too brave in his bid to recover china, venturing alone into the tumbled intestines of the ship. The Doria lies on her starboard side, meaning walls have become floors and ceilings while floors and ceilings have become walls. Maybe he gets lost - nobody really knows because he's diving alone - and somehow ends up making a frantic bolt for the surface, causing an air embolism. He's already dead when he gets to the surface.
Other guys die because their hearts, unknown to them, are ticking time bombs. One diver doesn't feel right on the way down; he signals he's aborting the dive, but his fellow divers decide to continue. When the other divers get back to the surface, to their horror, they learn that nobody's seen Charlie.
Another diver makes a bid for china - again, he's alone. Somehow, he blacks out, perhaps from a build-up of carbon dioxide. That can happen at 210 feet. The time when he was due back at the boat comes and goes, but nobody's seen Richard. The next day, searchers find him floating face down inside the wreck, looking so peaceful, his regulator still in his mouth and his mask on as if he were just taking a nap. Two of his gas bottles are still full. Nobody saw the end with Richard, with Charlie, with Vince, with Craig. It's as if the sea drew a curtain across the final moment, pulling it back only to reveal a corpse.
"They choose to dive; it's their own decision. Nobody forces them; they attempt to go out and do something, and sometimes they get in over their heads," said Lt. Tim Dickerson, the Coast Guard assistant senior investigating officer in New Haven, who investigated the five deaths on the Andrea Doria in 1998 and 1999. " `China fever' is the term the papers refer to - it's not my term - but sometimes that happens."
With disapproval, the Coast Guard noted that four of the dead divers were either without a dive buddy, or had ventured away from their buddy, at the moment of crisis.
Many deep-wreck divers scoff at the notion that the buddy system - one of the Sacred Commandments of recreational diving - would reduce deaths on the Doria. They say that on a dive as unforgiving as the Doria, just as in high-altitude mountain climbing, a diver who can't take care of him or herself will only end up hurting a buddy.
"Diving with a buddy would not have saved anybody, would not have helped anything" in the 1998 and 1999 deaths, said Dan Crowell, a top-flight wreck diver and captain of the Seeker, the boat from which all five of the dead men were diving. "In most cases, it probably would have caused two fatalities rather than one fatality."
Crowell described the Coast Guard as "a bunch of pimply-faced little boys" and noted, correctly, that the investigators did not have deep-wreck diving experience. He also noted that deep-wreck divers tend to have large egos.
"If five guys had heart attacks at a bowling alley, are they going to say it's a dangerous bowling alley?" Crowell says. "It's like, Hey, shit happens. And that's what it really is, but we're dealing with a mystique, we're dealing with egos, we're dealing with the most hostile environment outside of going into space."
The bloom of death on the Doria in 1998 and 1999 was tragic. But for a host of magazines and newspapers, it also made great copy. Outside, Yankee, Newsday and Esquire flocked to do stories on the Doria. Journalists suddenly were competing with divers to visit what writers called "the Mount Everest of deep wreck diving." The Doria was most like the world's tallest mountain in this way: With a bit of commitment and a healthy checkbook, the average Joe was suddenly able to go there. The average Joe was going, and he was dying.
Still, it's not exactly Russian Roulette, and the comparisons with Everest are a bit overblown. At least 5,000 dives have been made on the Doria. Considering the 12 divers who have been killed since private dive charters to the Doria started in 1981, the odds of dying on the wreck are still about one in 400. On Everest, more than 150 have died - about one death for every five climbers who have reached the summit.
Yet, if there is a kind of eternity to the depths of the ocean, it must be a powerful thing to go there - and come back. Call it history, call it adventure, but there is a kind of tidal pull that tugs relentlessly from the bottom of the sea, emanating up from that decaying mass of steel. No longer the sleek lady, the Doria has become a decaying hulk trussed with fishermen's nets and severed anchor lines, crumbling a little more with each winter's storms.
What do you feel, when you see her for the first time? Reverence, perhaps.
"I got on my knees and I just touched it," said Weydig, remembering her first dive to the Doria. "It's like, `I'm here,' after all that training."
Silverstein, who has 46 dives on the Doria, describes the lure of the deep wreck as well as anybody.
"The Doria has always been a pinnacle dive. It's not just the depth; it's not just the significance as a piece of history," he says. "What the Doria represents is, the top of your class, the bond of your friends, and the reminder that this stuff is dangerous . . . .The Doria becomes part of your life. It's a central focus of your community. It's a meeting ground. Yeah, there are wrecks that are meaner, that are deeper, but I don't think they approach the appeal of the Doria."
Steve Bielenda, owner of the Wahoo, has been diving the Doria since he first began bringing dive charters out here in 1981.
"You're not feeling that you're going to die when you do it. You're not feeling like, I'm not going to come back. You're thinking this is the biggest sucker I've ever been on; it's the deepest sucker I've been on. I want to come back and brag I'm an Andrea Doria diver."
When I decided to spend a day on the Wahoo this fall, Silverstein asked me if I was going to dive. He offered me gear if I needed it. I'd just had knee surgery, so I didn't have to think about the answer. The San Diego is just within the 130-foot depth limit for recreational diving. I'm a certified diver with years of experience, and I've gone to wrecks deeper than the San Diego.
I wondered, what would I have answered if I had been healthy? If somebody had offered me the chance to dive on the Doria, would I ever have said yes?
Not so many years ago, I'd done the wreck of the President Coolidge, off an island about 1,300 miles northeast of Brisbane, Australia - not as deep, not cold, not anywhere near as hard-nosed as the Doria, but not exactly the shallow tropical reef dives that some wreck divers contemptuously call "Tidy Bowl Diving."
Traveling to Vanuatu in the South Pacific and diving the Coolidge seemed reasonable at the time. A girlfriend had just phoned me to say she was seeing somebody else. Why not go?
The 654-foot Coolidge was the largest commercial ship ever built in the United States when it was launched in 1931. After Pearl Harbor, the Coolidge was hastily converted into a troop carrier, and sent to war. She struck a mine in 1942 off Espiritu Santo, and went to the bottom a short swim from shore.
In Santo, I linked up with a gruff Australian named Allan Power who had been diving the wreck since 1969. I was not an experienced diver at the time, but I'm not sure he even cared about my certification card. He did care about me paying my 2,500 vatus. The nearest recompression chamber was hundreds of miles away, in a different country. It might as well have been on the moon. I never even figured out that we were going to break the no-decompression limits until we were 154 feet down, deep inside the carcass of the ocean liner, and my dive computer began flashing a warning that decompression would be required. I had never done a decompression dive before.
Jacques Cousteau called it "the rapture of the deep," but for me, nitrogen narcosis has never been rapturous. We were breathing simple compressed air - the helium-oxygen mixtures used on the Doria were not in common use then, and even if they had been, they wouldn't have been available in a place like Vanuatu.
That dive, it felt like the inside of my head was lined with wool. All of my perception had been pinched down, as if I were inside the barrel of a gun. If I looked right at something, I could comprehend what it was, but somehow my mind could not hold an overall perception that included where I was, who I was and what I was doing. Then, inside the dark wreck, my light conked out.
I thought I could hear voices warning: "Your life is in danger! Your life is in danger!" I knew they were thoughts, not voices, but they seemed to come from someplace beyond my mind.
I could feel my heart pounding in my chest and I began to suck a lot of air out of my tank. I knew I was overbreathing. But the more I thought about my breathing, the harder I breathed.
I couldn't return directly to the surface now without a high risk of suffering decompression sickness - "the bends." To avoid "getting bent," I would have to make a decompression stop at 20 feet, then 10 feet, staying for several minutes at each depth to allow dissolved nitrogen to slowly come out of my body.
Finally we started up, ascending through the center of the ship and into the grand ballroom of the Coolidge. On the bridge, we swam like spirits through the empty window sockets where the captain and officers once stood and watched the ocean. But I was not feeling poetic. I kept glancing at my tank's pressure gauge, which dropped steadily past 1,000, 750, 500 psi.
Following the laws of physics, the tank pressure dropped less rapidly the shallower we went. But I was laboring to pull the last breaths out of my tank when my computer finally came out of the caution zone at my final 10-foot decompression stop and it was safe to surface.
That was close. But the next day, I came back to dive again. And by the end of the week, I had mastered my fear. On one dive, Power guided me into a hold of the ship, where jeeps, weapons, china and other throwaways of war sloughed out of the overturned ship. Power reached into the rubble and handed me a Colt .45 semiautomatic pistol. Even underwater it was heavy. I hefted it, and I thought about how that Colt had probably been made in Hartford, and how both of us had come from the same place and traveled halfway around the planet to meet in this strange place, at the bottom of the sea.
It's 5:40 in the morning and I'm lying in my bunk below deck on the Wahoo, basking in the perfume of neoprene, when I hear the sudden rumble of steps on the deck above my head, fast determined footfalls that sound like the anxious boots of invading troops. Somebody fires up a diesel generator right beside my head and any hope for sleep is wiped away.
Up on deck, the day's diving clients are circled around the stern of the boat, moon-like faces looking in at the lights of the boat from the pre-dawn darkness. Most come from New York City or Connecticut, and they range in age from graybeards to a slender young guy in a black leather jacket who arrived on a motorcycle. All 31 clients today are men, but this is not an all-male excursion - the Wahoo's captain and another member of the crew are women.
You can immediately split the divers into two groups - the "single-tankers," who will dive with a single tank, and the technical, or extended range divers, almost all of whom dive in dry suits and with two tanks of breathing gas yoked together. Most of them will also hit the water with at least three other tanks - two tanks slung under each arm carrying the gas they will breathe during decompression, and a smaller tank filled with argon they use to keep their dry suits inflated at depth. The decompression tanks are often filled with either pure oxygen or Nitrox, a nitrogen-oxygen mixture that has a greater proportion of oxygen than air. The limited amount of air in a single tank generally forces a diver to stay within the no-decompression limits by staying shallower and keeping a dive shorter. The technical divers view the single-tankers with the mixture of expectation and condescension of upper classmen reviewing freshmen pledges at a fraternity rush. Who knows? Some of them might make the big leagues someday.
The Wahoo pulls out of her slip promptly at 6, with streaks of salmon coloring the eastern sky over Long Island. As we pull under a cantilever bridge, the steel silhouette is suddenly etched onto the pink sky, and studded with lights it is stunning, but hardly anybody is watching scenery. The single-tankers are inside, getting a lecture on the Wahoo's diving procedures from crewmember Rick Kleinschuster. They listen as meekly as schoolboys, with hardly a word.
Sometime later, Lee Livingston and Paul Scarpa are talking over the din of the diesels. Connecticut residents Livingston, 53, and Scarpa, 35, are not single-tankers. Frequent dive partners, both of them have dived the Doria and other dives that are even more extreme.
Scarpa pulls out a pair of cigars; he grins broadly at Livingston in anticipation of their post-dive ritual.
The day I visited Scarpa at his home in East Haven, he had a porthole in his dishwasher. Scarpa had recovered it from the wreck of the Sebastian, a 300-foot-long tanker that is even deeper in the Atlantic than the Doria. If you opened the tank on the back of Scarpa's toilet, you might find artifacts from the Andrea Doria or other wrecks. The toilet tank is one place where Scarpa soaks artifacts to get the salt out after so many years underwater.
Like everybody else who dives the Wahoo, Scarpa knew Tony Maffatone.
"People like Tony, even myself sometimes, are test pilots," he told me. "I don't know what draws me to do it."
A construction project manager, Scarpa used to race motorcycles, but he's always loved being in the water, and now he dives nearly every weekend during the summer. He dreams one day of diving the wreck of the Britannic, the sister ship to the Titanic, which lies nearly 400 feet down in the Aegean Sea of Greece.
"I'd like to join the sub-500 [feet] group," he told me with an almost bashful grin.
Livingston, a wiry man from Guilford who became a grandfather four years ago and is a combination cemetery sexton and dive instructor, remembers the day the Doria sank. His parents took him to the edge of Long Island Sound in Westbrook and pointed out toward the Atlantic. A great ship is sinking out there, they told the 9-year-old. Livingston never forgot that.
A few years ago, he finally got to see the Doria. He's now done 11 dives to the liner. "It's like being a part of history to go down and touch these ships," he told me. "I've never climbed Mount Everest, but I think I understand why they were going, because the feeling of having done [the Doria] was incredible."
By 7:40, the Wahoo is moored over the San Diego, and the divers begin gearing up. Once in their dry suits, they move with the tight, purposeful briskness of a person outdoors in a light shirt on a very cold day. In fact, in their dry suits and rubber hoods, the opposite is true: In the rapidly warming morning, they are hot, and anxious to get in the water. Down on the wreck, the water temperature is 58 degrees - more suitable for dry suits.
Nobody says much to anybody else, apart from a few clipped words when communication becomes necessary. Gearing up on any dive boat is a mixture of throat-knotting anxiety and physical discomfort; it's the only time most divers feel claustrophobic.
The technical divers go in the water first; the single-tankers have to wait. The first pair of technical divers are in the water at 7:52 - shouldering their 140-pound, double-tanked rigs, waddling across the deck in fins, and stepping out over the side, where the sea swallows them in a noisy rush of white bubbles and the water washes cold against their cheeks. For them, everything goes quiet. For them, everything suddenly feels right.
Steve Bielenda views the intensive interest in the Andrea Doria with bemusement. As much as anyone, he started it. A squat 64-year-old with white hair, the clearest light blue eyes and a single gold earring, Bielenda has been diving since 1959. He ran the first regular charter trips to the Doria starting in 1981. Twenty years ago, a Newsday article christened him "King of the Deep." The Seeker has surpassed the Wahoo as the dive boat that makes the most trips to the Doria during the brief, two-month summer season for the wreck, but Bielenda doesn't feel he's relinquished that title.
He was hardly displeased that one of his quotes about the Seeker's Andrea Doria deaths found its way into Esquire magazine.
"If it takes a death to be the number one Doria boat," Bielenda told the magazine, "then I'm happy being number two."
The owner of the Wahoo seems to have an opinion on everything - from the best way to raise a sunken ship to the tastiest way to prepare a blackfish to the safest way to vomit underwater. Arms crossed and leaning back against the rail, he amiably dispenses those opinions as divers, one-by-one, go over the side of the Wahoo.
His feelings aren't hurt if you don't listen. But you'll learn something if you do.
"What these guys are doin' with all their high-tech stuff we used to do on air," Bielenda says of modern mixed-gas diving on the Doria. "We didn't even know if we got bent, or we didn't. Sometimes not knowin' is a very, very good protection. I didn't know I could get killed doing that."
Maffatone was one of Bielenda's best friends. Bielenda was on the Wahoo the day Maffatone died.
"See that riff of bubbles over there?" Bielenda says, pointing off the Wahoo's stern towards another boat that had divers down on the San Diego. "That's where he came up, about 40 feet away."
Bielenda tried desperately to resuscitate his friend, but could not. But thank God he was there to try, otherwise he would have wondered for the rest of his life whether there was something else that could have been done. The whole thing happened so fast that a Coast Guard boat had already evacuated Maffatone's body by the time the Wahoo's captain, Janet Bieser, completed her dive. She came out of the water and wondered why everybody looked so grief-stricken.
By now, Scarpa and Livingston are in the water, diving as a team, and Joel is gearing up to go over the side. The electric scooter that he hopes will carry him around the Andrea Doria next year is already in the water, and now pulls his dry suit over his burly shoulders. Unlike a wet suit, a dry suit insulates a diver by keeping water out.
Today Silverstein is diving alone, as he almost always does. "I'm an independent diving machine," is how he puts it.
Joel's rig and his dry suit have none of the Day-Glo glitz you might find on a Caribbean diver, but Bielenda points out the minimalist beauty of the set-up - the symmetry of the silver valves that yoke together the gray steel tanks, how streamlined the setup is. Lift-bags, emergency ascent reel, three regulators, Abyss Explorer mixed gas decompression computer and bottom timer, dive light and battery and other gear are all arrayed so can reach them blind, without conscious thought. He knows his gear by touch, the way a guitarist knows the frets of his guitar.
"Diving gear is like nail polish, everybody's got a different color and a different configuration," Bielenda says, in his native Brooklyn accent where "gear" comes out geah and "color" sounds something like cuhla.
A few minutes later, steps off the Wahoo, hitting the water and vanishing with the easy kick of an expert diver with perfect buoyancy control, even with that load of twin steel tanks he's got on his back. The visibility is not much more than 15 feet, pretty typical for the San Diego.
Joel's gear is not gaudy; it's also not cheap. A technical diver can count on spending $10,000 for the basic gear. Every time you visit the Doria, you'll be spending more, probably $2,000 for a four-day charter counting boat fees, breathing gas and transportation. Not that those obstacles have cut off the flow of divers to the Doria: Increasingly, divers are coming to dive the wreck from Japan, Germany, Italy and other countries.
Bielenda doesn't have a lot of patience for "credit-card divers," for guys who think they can climb the technical diving ladder with stuff they learn from an instructor or a book in place of experience.
"Technical diving today, it's like a bunch of kids with a new car. They just got their license, and now they want to drive a Porsche," he says.
No, you've got to earn the Doria by surviving your own mistakes and problems - learning to keep cool when your regulator clogs with mud, as once happened to Bielenda; learning to stay alive when your buddy is flipped out from nitrogen narcosis 190 feet down and thinks he's not getting air, as once happened to Scarpa. says some of his best dives on the Doria were with his wife. But now that he and Weydig have a little girl, they don't dive like that together. They don't want to leave an orphan.
"We're secure enough in our relationship with each other that we know that death is a reality of the sport that we do," says Silversten. "If one of us was to die doing what we do and what we love, yes, it would be sad, but at least we wouldn't have ever felt that one of us was compromised. Too many relationships out there are compromised. We're both explorers in everything that we do in life."
What does he mean by marriages that are compromised?
Say the husband's an explorer. The wife isn't. "He's a miserable sack of shit," says Silverstein. "He's always in a place where someone else doesn't want him to be, [someone who] can't understand his need to explore. In the end, the whole marriage is compromised."
Maffatone was an explorer, and an inventor, too - a guy who did security for high rollers like Sylvester Stallone, landing him the role of a baleful KGB agent in "Rocky IV" and parts in other Stallone pictures. A diver for 35 years, he had been to the Doria many times and had invested more than $70,000 developing his custom diving rig.
Silverstein clears his ears, equalizing them against the increasing pressure, as he descends to the San Diego. He sends a shot of argon gas into his dry suit as the increasing pressure squeezes it against his body; he blows a shot of gas into the wings of his buoyancy compensator as the compressing suit takes his buoyancy and he begins to sink. Below 60 feet, the immense broad back of the upended San Diego, mottled with anemones and attended by clouds of fish, looms out of the green.
Joel 's scooter pulls him around the wreck. Sometimes, he encounters other divers from the Wahoo, but the limited visibility draws a gauzy green curtain around him as he moves though the water, and for the most part he's alone. Deep water consumes color, but when aims his light into the haunches of the wreck, the colors of the wreck's living calculus of anemones and other sea life jump out in red, orange and yellow. is looking for clues Maffatone may have left behind. The authorities have not completed their investigation, but the wreck divers are dubious that the authorities will come up with an accurate explanation.
Bielenda has his own theory for what happened to Tony. Like most diving deaths, it wasn't one problem that killed Maffatone; it was a domino effect of escalating problems. His custom-designed dive rig included seven bottles of gas, and Maffatone had designed it with redundant backup systems meant to cope with any emergency. It was a huge apparatus, bigger than a backpack on a space suit. Somehow, on that Aug. 2 dive, Maffatone turned turtle, flipping onto his back just as the San Diego had done when it sank in 1918. Bielenda thinks the fatal fault in Maffatone's gear probably happened right then, and Maffatone wasn't in a position to deal with it. At some point, he decided the only way he was going to stay alive was to ditch his gear. He cut his way out and started a free ascent for the surface.
He didn't make it.
"Right now I'm angry with him, OK?" says Silverstein. "There are a variety of things that he should have done but that he didn't do in testing a piece of equipment."
Silverstein orbits the San Diego three times on this dive, looking for something to stand out to indicate where Maffatone died. But he finds nothing but solitude in the place where his friend died. More than once, he speaks to Maffatone on this dive.
On the surface, the Wahoo is riding the slate-colored waves. Some of the divers who are done for the day, including Scarpa and Livingston, are wearing smiles and puffing on cigars. Other guys are laughing, talking, sharing a meal of pasta shells in tomato sauce, or beers they brought along for the trip.
Bielenda is still dispensing opinions - how the father and son who died on a U-boat wreck off New Jersey could have survived if they had ascended right away instead of looking for their lost decompression bottles, how a diver trapped inside the Doria could have taken short hits off his deco gas, preventing the pure oxygen from short-circuiting his nervous system.
always options, Bielenda seems to be saying, as a weather front
blows in from the open ocean and a cold rain gets set to fall. This
is not like the rest of life. If you stay cool enough, if your balls
are brassy enough, if your gear is good enough and if you really
know how to use it, there's always a way out. There's always a
Extra pictures added
Mortally wounded on the morning after her collision with the Stockholm, the Andrea Doria lists to starboard, taking on water and preparing to make her final plunge to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean south of Nantucket.
Joel Silverstein emerges from Santa Rosa Blue Hole. (Kathy Weydig, photo)
Husband and wife Joel Silverstein and Kathy Weydig have dived to many deep shipwrecks together, including the Andrea Doria. (Tom Brown photo)
Capt. Kathy Weydig after dive in the Santa Rosa Blue Hole. (Joel Silverstein, photo)
Fully equipped, wreck diver Joel Silverstein of Bridgeport enters the water for a dive on the San Diego this fall. Besides the twin tanks on his back filled with the mixture of helium, oxygen and nitrogen that he'll breathe on the wreck. (Mike Swift photo)
Deep dive partners Lee Livingston, left, of Guilford, and Paul Scarpa of East Haven have made the descent to the Andrea Doria. (Tom Brown photo)
Captain Steve Bielenda
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