Last Thursday, the dive charter boat John Jack returned to Montauk with the body of a diver who perished while exploring a shipwreck in over 200 feet of water. It was the second time in five days that the John Jack had returned with a dead diver.
Timothy Barrow, 64, a veterinarian and experienced diver from Reading, Pa., made it to the surface, according to published reports, but succumbed to an apparent heart attack. Mr. Barrow was diving on the wreck of the Norness, a tanker sunk by a German U-boat in 1942. The ship lies 250 feet down and about 60 miles southeast of Montauk.
On July 24, the ocean liner Andrea Doria claimed her 16th deep-diving victim, Michael LaPrade, 27, of Gardena, Calif., who was also diving from the John Jack. East Hampton Town Police Chief Edward Ecker said the young man became separated from his dive rope. Deep divers say it is not uncommon to become disoriented at such depths.
The Andrea Doria collided with the Swedish liner Stockholm in a thick fog on July 25, 1956. It sank the next day 106 miles east of Montauk in over 200 feet of water. Forty-six people lost their lives.
The day after the Andrea Doria sank, Peter Gimbel torched a hole in the Doria’s hull and retrieved the ship’s safe. The wreck has been a popular target for wreck divers ever since, but with a dangerous difference. The hull has corroded and is slowly collapsing. It lies 240 feet down on the sandy bottom, on its starboard side.
The bridge section toppled over in the 1970s.
Don Schnell of Montauk has made the Doria dive over 60 times. He spoke to The Star in 2006 just after diving to the Italian ocean liner on the 50th anniversary of her sinking. Like other deep divers, finding mementos and bringing them to the surface was part of what attracted him to the sport. He has salvaged dishes, ashtrays, as well as a small wooden cross from the ship’s chapel.
He said the draw for deep divers was not just sport but love of history. “It’s a sport to retrieve history that’s being lost. The Norness was the first American ship lost in the Second World War. . . . Every one of them is a history buff.”
A man died during one of Mr. Schnell’s dives when he became entanled in electrical conduit.
The Suffolk, a collier sunk 35 miles south of Montauk by U-boats during World War I, and the wreck of U-853 sunk by U.S. Coast Guard and Navy vessels on the last day of World War II, are popular dives. The submarine lies in 135 feet of water just to the north of Block Island.
The Norness, a Panamanian-flagged oil tanker, sank in waters even deeper than where the Andrea Doria lies in January of 1942 after being torpedoed by a U-boat. It was the first ship to be sunk by U-boats during Germany’s operation Paukenschlag (Drumbeat) to destroy allied shipping. The wreck is less popular because of its depth.
Mr. Schnell said in 2006 that despite the latest scuba gear and the cocktail of mixed gasses — helium, nitrogen, and oxygen — known as tri-mix in place of compressed pure air, divers got disoriented.
A deep dive itself is made by descending hand over hand down a rope that is first tied off to the wreck. When the Gulf Stream is running at three knots, the descent can be extremely tiring. And, then there is the hour-and-20-minute staged ascent to prevent the bends, a potentially fatal condition caused by dissolved nitrogen forming bubbles in the bloodstream when a diver surfaces too fast.
One descent per day is strongly recommended, although some divers press their luck. Because these wrecks are in waters that are outside state and federal jurisdictions, deep dives are virtually unregulated.
In 2001, the death of a deep diver sparked an investigation by the Coast Guard. Like Mr. Barrow last week, Christopher B. Murley suffered cardiac arrest on the surface. Unlike Mr. Barrow, he was preparing for his second dive of the day. A Coast Guard report questioned the ethical, if not legal, decision of Dan Cromwell, captain of the charter boat Seeker operating out of Montauk, to let Mr. Murley dive.
He was a big man, 6-foot-7, weighed 350 pounds, and suffered from diabetes. He was allowed to dive despite his health issues, lack of certification for tri-mix diving, and the fact that he had not completed enough dives to go deep without an instructor.
“Allowing an inexperienced diver to dive these depths while under instruction, carrying additional equipment they are probably not used to, and far from any professional medical treatment is an unnecessary risk that borders on negligence,” Coast Guard Lieut. Tim Dickerson wrote in his report on Mr. Murley’s death.
The Coast Guard report was damning, but the agency did not then and still does not have the authority to intercede. Legally speaking, dive charter boats are not responsible for their customers. “They are just platforms,” Chief Ecker said on Monday.
Reached yesterday, Mr. Schnell said that regulating wreck diving would be very difficult. It is a demanding sport that required the best health and fitness, he said.
“It’s like mountain climbing. Wreck diving is the pinnacle of scuba diving. People die extreme skiing. Can you regulate extreme skiing?”