It is not death, but dying, which is terrible.
Wearing close to two-hundred pounds of scuba gear, Gary Gilligan was anxious to make his ungainly entry into the rolling seas of the Atlantic. The neoprene dry suit and his heavy undergarments had him sweating bullets under the hot July-afternoon sun. Prior to his giant step outward and down from the deck of the dive boat RV Wahoo, Gary glanced around and surveyed his surroundings with only the narrow range of vision that his dive mask afforded him.
Land had long since disappeared over the horizon, and no other vessel was in sight. The glare of the sun reflecting off the glassy seas made him wince behind his faceplate. He of course was aware of the activity around him. Getting into the water is always a major hassle for deep divers, and attendance by crew members and fellow divers prior to entry is a necessity, not a luxury. Still, it was tough for Gary Gilligan to be patient, overburdened as he was with gear, not to mention with anxiety. Gary had to remind himself to be cool: getting all bent out of shape before entering the water was a bad idea, he knew. It had a way of biting you back in the ass.
Gary tried to maintain his balance, but he felt encumbered with all the hardware, encased from head to toe in the suffocating dry suit. It was not easy what with the three-foot swells gently lifting up the fifty-five-foot fiberglass boat, only to drop it back down into the following trough, making the deck of the vessel an unstable platform. The cerulean skies high overhead, Gary noticed, still had contrails vectoring eastward to Europe, left behind by the streaking Concorde whose sonic booms had rocked the boat just minutes earlier.
Then the dorsal and caudal fins of the circling blue sharks and their ominous forms beneath suddenly disappeared. They had descended into the depths, Gary thought, knowing full well that he would catch glimpses of their skittish shadows on his long swim to the bottom. Steadying himself on the gunwale, he was relishing the thought of immersion in the cold, blue-green waters of the Atlantic. Finally he would be on his way down the distance of a seventeen-floor skyscraper to the wreck of the Andrea Doria.
Gary checked to see if his buddy Sally Wahrmann was ready. They gave each other the thumb-to-forefinger salute indicating that everything was okay. Gary pressed his mask tight to his face, snugged his double tanks to his back, and entered the ocean.
With only twenty-five minutes allotted for bottom time, Gary and Sally quickly emptied their bloated dry suits of air and kicked hard for the bow anchor line that led down to the sunken luxury liner. Gary was surprised to see three divers lingering on a line running from the anchor line aft at the fifty-foot mark.
Kicking down past them, Gary gave a quick glance back up. He could see the three men were having difficulties. Just a mere hour ago the three had rigged the two long sets of hoses and breathing regulators that were hooked to a tank of pure oxygen aboard the Wahoo and had secured them to a weighted line amidships at the desired depth of twenty feet. Gary could now see that one of those divers, twenty-seven-year-old John Ormsby, one of the charterers of the trip, had gotten hung up in the traverse line. Another diver, Billy Deans, had come to his aid to untangle him. Gary could see they were handling the situation and continued his descent.
In deep diving it was a radically new practice to use supplemental oxygen in water. Breathing pure oxygen after a dive was always known to be beneficial, but using it underwater had only recently been advocated, by Billy Deans of Key West, Florida. Deans knew it was a quick way to expunge the nitrogen gas that had been absorbed by the blood and soft tissues under the crushing load of the ocean. The tiny nitrogen bubbles released by the rapid reduction of pressure, if not compensated for by a slow ascent and a supply of oxygen, could spread through the body, crippling or even killing the diver. Divers called it getting "bent," but the medical community referred to it as decompression sickness.
Sally Wahrmann never saw the unfolding drama above her. She was focused on the dark abyss beneath her. Only later would she hear the story and think about how it was a tragic foreshadowing of what was to happen just minutes later, more than two-hundred feet beneath the surface deep within the holds of the sunken steel sarcophagus of the Andrea Doria.
No one would ever guess that Sally Wahrmann was a pioneer in the world of deep diving. At thirty-nine, Sally looked more like the accounting professor she actually was in the professional world. Only five foot five and edging precipitously toward two hundred pounds, Sally was one of the most accomplished scuba divers -- male or female -- in the rarefied world of deep-wreck diving. She had logged over sixty dives alone on the Doria.
On July 31, 1985, Sally was again on the Wahoo. She was more excited than usual as several Florida diving luminaries were also aboard.
Spencer Slate from Key Largo had chartered the Wahoo. Slate owned the Atlantis Diver Center in Key Largo, which was a popular tourist destination for divers in the Florida Keys. It had always been a dream of Slate's to dive the Andrea Doria, so he had put the group together to charter the Wahoo. Billy Deans owned Key West Diver, a dive shop and training business. Deans was a trailblazer in deep diving, and his exploits in Florida-water shipwrecks were the stuff of legend. Neal Watson, the owner of Undersea Adventures, which consisted of diving resorts in Florida and the Caribbean, also had the record at the time for the deepest dive on scuba at 437 feet. John Ormsby, Deans's best friend, dive buddy, and instructor at his shop, had the record for free diving, or skin diving, down to 170 feet on just one breath. Rick Frehsee was an internationally acclaimed underwater photographer, whose work had appeared in National Geographic among others. Also in the charter were Dick Masten, a police officer, and Lou Delotto, an airline pilot, both well-known in the Florida dive community. It was a first trip for all of them to the Andrea Doria. For all his deep-water experience, Billy Deans had never dove outside the state of Florida.
The group made the trek up to Montauk at the tip of New York's Long Island, where the Wahoo was to pick them up.
Spencer Slate, who had chartered the boat, wasn't with them. On one of his training dives for the Doria, Slate had taken a minor hit of decompression sickness in 250 feet of water off Key West, and his doctor thought for safety's sake Slate should back out of the deep Andrea Doria dive.
The Florida group was there for one reason: china. Pieces of china, crystal, and silverware with the mark of the Italia steamship company are more precious than Spanish doubloons to wreck divers. The Floridians had discussed the china the day before departure with veteran Doria diver Gary Gentile, who was crewing on the Wahoo. Gentile had already made a trip out to the wreck the week before, and he had his recovered artifacts from the first-class gift shop. Deans remembered the trinkets had stirred up "a fever, a frenzy, a rabidity," among the Florida group. On the way out to the wreck site the only topic of conversation was the Andrea Doria ship plans and how to get some artifacts off her.
Rick Jaszyn, another deep diver with Doria experience, was also crewing aboard the Wahoo. A New Jersey resident, Jaszyn was only twenty-seven years old, but he had logged hundreds of dives on the deep wrecks found in the waters of the North Atlantic. He was the only diver, besides Gary Gentile and Steve Bielenda, who knew the Florida contingent personally. He had made a pilgrimage to Deans's Key West Diver and dove the USS Wilkes-Barre with Deans and Ormsby. He had the highest regard for their diving skills. Jaszyn was amazed when Ormsby made a free dive to the top of the Wilkes-Barre, a depth of 150 feet. But on this Doria trip Jaszyn was alarmed by Ormsby's "gung ho" determination to collect some artifacts on his first visit to the wreck. It was not Ormsby's diving talents he doubted. Jaszyn knew that Ormsby's experience came from the totally different Florida environment. Up north, diving in higher latitudes was an "equipment-intensive" experience, plus visibility and cold water factored in as well. Rick Jaszyn tried to cool Ormsby's jets, but knew he had the "fever."
Having Andrea Doria china in one's collection of wreck artifacts is a testament to one's diving prowess, as close to an Olympic gold medal as a diver can get. However, diving the recumbent luxury liner is outside the realm of recreational diving. Unlike on a recreational dive, on a Doria dive you have to contemplate the very real possibility that you may not get out alive.
The Doria, as veteran wreck divers simply refer to her, lies in 235 feet of frequently storm-tossed waters. From the Wahoo's home port in Captree Boat Basin on New York's Long Island, it was a torturous eighteen-hour trip out to the wreck site. Even from Montauk it was still a ten-hour trip.
"Getting beat up" on the trip out is a rite of passage for Doria divers. It isn't just the mercurial Atlantic that conspires against you. The sleeping quarters aboard the speedy fiberglass Wahoo are laughingly referred to as "spice racks." The Wahoo's bunks are stacked like trays below the decks, and diesel fumes mingle with the odor of dozens of sweating bodies in the claustrophobic space. The smell of fear pervades belowdecks preceding any Doria dive. The common belief is that if you are not scared about doing the dive, you are either lying or stupid. Few get much sleep before the dive, and the fatigue adds to the likelihood of a mishap.
The Andrea Doria is one shipwreck the mainstream diving community prefers to ignore -- and for good reason. Travel magazines and publications like Skin Diver Magazine promote scuba diving as a nice, safe recreational sport. Scuba advertisers -- the equipment manufacturers and Caribbean resorts in particular -- tend to illustrate their ads with curvy, bikini-clad models and smiling families suited up in color-coordinated dive gear. Doria divers in bulky, ugly dry suits, shouldering backbreaking double tanks, bedecked with crowbars, hammers, chisels, goodie bags, and big, powerful underwater lights look like intimidating creatures from another planet. These explorers of the deep also violate the widely accepted maximum depth of diving of 130 feet. Going beyond that limit is a dangerous heresy to the diving industry.
Below 130 feet, the risks to divers with a limited air supply are substantial. Nitrogen narcosis, the "rapture of the deep" as scuba inventor and underwater cinematic chronicler Jacques Cousteau called it, intoxicates divers to varying degrees at those depths, often impairing judgment with fatal results.
Nitrogen routinely makes up almost 80 percent of the air we breathe in, with obviously no ill effects. But when nitrogen is compressed into a steel cylinder and transported down to that depth, it becomes a gaseous anesthetic. In the infancy of scuba, divers used to refer to it as Martini's Law: every fifty feet down was equal to drinking one dry martini on an empty stomach. A diver on the Doria would suffer the effects of four to five martinis.
But narcosis is sneaky for most people because it induces a pleasant euphoric feeling, inability to concentrate, and a short attention span. Being easily distracted can mean big trouble to someone who is down deep under the surface of the ocean. Like people with their liquor, some divers hold their nitrogen better than others. Most Doria divers manage getting "narced" by systematic thinking, taking everything slowly and step by step. A deep diver's ability to operate while narced is his or her badge of courage.
Nitrogen has another insidious effect on the diver; under pressure, nitrogen is dissolved from the lungs into the blood and soft tissues. On a diver's return to the surface he must allow for the nitrogen to slowly migrate back to the lungs, revert to its gaseous state, and then be exhaled. This is why divers make decompression stops. Failing to decompress and returning to the surface too quickly is analogous to opening a well-shaken bottle of soda. Millions of tiny bubbles escape into the blood system and can cause blockages in the heart, brain, and central nervous system, preventing the flow of life-giving oxygen. Getting bent is, in effect, a stroke of cataclysmic proportions.
Decompression illness can also have chemical side effects, which could include blood clotting, formation of fat emboli, activation of platelets and leukocytes, and lactic accumulation. The circulatory system can be impaired, and when blood flow is hampered, cells die and irreversible damage can occur.
According to U.S. navy diving tables, a twenty-minute dive down to 220 feet requires a one-minute stop at forty feet, a three-minute stop at thirty feet, an eleven-minute stop at twenty feet, and a twenty-four minute stop at ten feet?or almost double the time spent on the bottom. This is all done on a limited air supply carried on the diver's back. Running out of air before you can surface is always the foremost worry to a deep diver. Getting bent or drowning when diving the Doria are real possibilities, and precautions must be taken and followed to the letter.
Getting narced and bent are not the only problems that breathing compressed air present. Life-giving oxygen can also be treacherous at extreme depths. Down at two atmospheres (thirty-three feet below the surface), 100 percent oxygen is toxic. In compressed air the oxygen is diluted to about 21 percent. Still, according to Dalton's law of physics, in a mixture of gases, each gas exerts a pressure proportional to the percentage of the total gas that it represents. So at two hundred feet, or seven atmospheres absolute, oxygen approaches the same dangerous toxicity it has at two atmospheres. Simply put, oxygen is needed to support life and cells, but too much of it initiates cell destruction. Oxygen toxicity can convulse a diver, and drownings at deep depths on compressed air are often blamed on oxygen toxicity. Portraying scuba as a potentially dangerous activity is not the face the travel industry wants to put on the sport. Therefore diving the Doria is bad for the lucrative business of scuba diving. Unable to stop it, the industry simply pretends it does not exist. To people like Sally Wahrmann, the appeal of that outlaw tag made diving the Doria all the more exciting.
Sally was crewing on the Wahoo for the fourth year in a row. In exchange for her time in the galley as cook, getting the boat ready for the charter, helping in the tedious job of hooking the grapple to the hull of the wreck, and getting client divers in the water, Sally got a free bunk aboard the boat and all the diving she could squeeze in. The paying clients shelled out $700 for the four-day charter. One of Sally's other jobs was signing in divers, collecting the waivers of risk, and checking certification cards and logbooks -- the onerous task of making sure the divers had documentation.
Sally remembers that everyone from the Florida group on the trip was gracious about the indignity of having their credentials checked except one -- John Ormsby. The tall, tan, and muscled Ormsby waved her off the first time she asked him for his certification cards and log, saying they were down below with his gear and he would get them later, a scenario that would be repeated several times over the next few hours. "It was like he couldn't be bothered," Wahrmann remembered. "Here he is this big-shot diver from Florida being asked for his c-cards [scuba certification cards] by this little nobody from New York. It really bothered me."
Sally made a visit to the bridge, where the master of the Wahoo, Captain Steve Bielenda, and regular pilot Captain Janet Bieser were busy negotiating the seas on the trek eastward. The ocean east of Montauk Point and south of Block Island and Martha's Vineyard is a mariner's nightmare: unpredictable seas, frequent fog banks, and a heavily trafficked shipping lane meant that one's captain's skills and focus have to be sharp. Problems below with clients on the trip out are the crew's problem, and Sally was hesitant to bother Captains Bielenda and Bieser with the seemingly trivial problem she was having with Ormsby.
Gary Gentile was also in the wheelhouse. Of all aboard the Wahoo, Gentile was by far and away the most experienced deep-wreck diver in the group, if not in the world. Gentile had been diving the Doria since 1974 and had more dives logged on the ocean liner than anyone else. Gentile had enough artifacts from the Doria to fill a small museum.
Captain Steve Bielenda was a legend. Dubbed "the king of the deep" by local newspapers in New York, Bielenda was well-known for his diving history in the wreck-strewn bottom of the New York Bight, the city's underwater environs. True to his reputation, he had the first charter dive boat to run regular trips out to the Doria in 1981, no small task since locating the bottom-dwelling ship was difficult. Other boats ran Doria trips, but Steve Bielenda's RV Wahoo was considered the best.
Janet Bieser, Bielenda's usual pilot out to the Doria, was the second woman ever to dive the Andrea Doria. Bieser was a stereotypical sea captain. Huge by any standards and as strong as an ox, Bieser also captained the Wahoo in the bitterly cold winters to fish for cod. Captain Janet tolerated no bullshit aboard the Wahoo. If you crossed her, you were told to stay the "fuck" off her boat. Bielenda always supported her.
When Bielenda asked Sally how everything was below, she reported that she had checked out all the divers but one, John Ormsby, and related her problems in getting him to cooperate. Gary Gentile remarked that of all the divers aboard, Ormsby was the last one that Sally had to worry about, but Bielenda was not so accommodating. He told Sally to demand his credentials and stop the bullshit or Ormsby wouldn't dive.
Ormsby finally produced his c-cards and log just a few hours before arriving at the destination. Sally took the time to sit down and read it, as Sally said, "just to break his balls." It was the only log of the entire charter group she actually read.
The Wahoo arrived at the wreck site at around 1 p.m., in time for one dive after lunch. Deans, Ormsby, and Lou Delotto quickly suited up and looked as if they would be the first to enter the water.
After cleaning up from lunch, Sally got permission from Bielenda to get a dive in before she had to prepare the evening meal. She buddied up with fellow crew member Gary Gilligan, and they planned to follow the Florida trio into the water but go to a different location in the wreck.
Unlike Sally, thirty-three-year-old Gary Gilligan fit the image of a death-defying deep diver. A lean, muscular six-footer, suntanned to the texture of leather, with blond hair and blue eyes, he looked every bit the part. When not crewing on the Wahoo, Gary "banged nails" as an independent carpenter at construction sites. He made his home on a boat, christened none too surprisingly the SS Minnow, in a marina in Bridgeport, Connecticut. This was his third year diving the Doria. He also had many artifacts liberated from the hold of the sunken vessel.
Sally and Gilligan were getting antsy after waiting almost forty-five minutes for the Florida contingent to get into the water. All dives on the Doria were carefully planned with the idea not to have different teams of divers in the same place on the same dive. Getting into each other's way and stirring up the muck inside the ship obscures visibility for the next team and is to be avoided at all costs. So Gary and Sally waited.
Gilligan remembered that the Florida group were "fucking around with their gear." John Ormsby, in particular, fussed with his weight belt. Gary Gentile remembers that Ormsby's belt looked like a carpenter's tool belt. A hammer, an adjustable wrench, a crowbar, and pliers were slung from the spring-gated snap hooks that hung from his belt. This kind of gear configuration was popular with Florida cave divers, who were responsible for most technical diving innovations in the Sunshine State. But it was not the same in the cold depths of the Northeast. Wreck divers who frequent the Doria call the snaps "suicide clips."
In Florida there was little chance of "danglies," such as Ormsby's snap hooks or tools, snagging the smooth limestone walls of an underwater cave, but in the dark, confining passages of a wreck, all the twisted and collapsed steel seems to almost reach out and grab you. Streamlining your gear and minimizing the chance of snagging yourself with danglies is foremost in a Doria diver's mind.
Mounted between John Ormsby's tanks was an emergency ascent line, called "Jersey upline" in the Northeast. The ascent line was to be deployed if the diver could not locate the anchor line or he was too far from it and low on air. To the right of his ascent line, Ormsby secured a power source for his underwater light. The configuration gave him a wide profile, making him extremely susceptible to snagging himself in tight quarters. But none of the locals ventured his opinion, not even Gary Gentile, who had assisted Ormsby in donning his gear. Other divers must have noticed the "suicide clips" but said nothing. Ormsby's ballyhooed reputation had preceded him. His comportment aboard the Wahoo on the trip out had put an exclamation point on it.
Under the hot sun, cooking in their stifling dry suits and thermal underwear, Sally appealed to Bielenda for a go-ahead with their dive since dinner-preparation time was nearing. The master of the Wahoo gave the okay. Sally and Gilligan needed another fifteen minutes to ready their gear, and in the meantime, and much to their relief, Deans, Ormsby, and Delotto finally entered the water.
The Florida trio's entry was made from the starboard side of the Wahoo, not the usual port side where there was a cutout on the gunwale. Deans had made the special request so they could inspect their oxygen rigging, which was on a weighted line on that side of the boat. The oxygen regulators were cinched to the line at twenty feet, the ideal depth for the purging of nitrogen using oxygen. According to their dive plan, once the oxygen lines were inspected, they would deploy a traverse line from the decompression line to the anchor line and then make their descent to the wreck.
The Wahoo crewmates gave the Floridians another ten minutes so they would not be crowding the anchor line during decompression, so Gary was surprised to see them struggling with the traverse line at fifty feet.
Ormsby and Delotto had dropped down the anchor line with one end of the traverse line that was to be deployed and secured it at fifty feet. Billy Deans, at the other end of the line, was to tie it off to the decompression line at the same depth, then swim over to join them for their descent.
When Deans arrived at the anchor line, he saw that Ormsby was fouled in the transverse line. Somehow it had gotten snagged on his tank manifolds. Deans says that Ormsby was annoyed since the fouling was delaying his timetable on the wreck.
"You can read a guy's eyes and hand signals in the water," Deans said, "and I could see that he was obviously agitated because he was fouled up. Lou couldn't really unfoul him. So I held up my hands, like saying 'Hey, relax!' and then untangled him, and he started down the anchor line hand over hand real fast. I looked at Lou and signaled with exasperation to just let him go."
Sally Wahrmann remembered that Ormsby kicked past her and Gilligan "like a bat out of hell." Ormsby's reputation as a strong swimmer was realized firsthand. Once he disappeared below her into the watery abyss, Sally focused on her own efforts.
Dropping down to the Doria was always an emotional experience for the fun-loving and gregarious accountant. Keeping a firm grip on the anchor line, equalizing the pressure in her mask and her inner ears, and blasting air into her dry suit to offset the squeeze from the weight of the ocean never prevented Sally from enjoying the rapid drop down to the wreck.
The light streaming down from the surface in refracted broad beams made her feel as if she were in a vast cathedral. The ethereal light humbled her, making her feel so small and the ocean so big. During the long four minutes before she set finned foot on the black hull of the Doria, she watched the passing parade of jellyfish, plankton, and sharks with a wondrous gaze.
The remains of the Andrea Doria were always a spellbinding sight to Sally. Seven hundred feet in length?longer than two football fields?lying on her starboard side, the carcass of the old ship stretched into the blue-green void farther than underwater visibility would permit Sally to see. Schools of bergalls, blackfish, cod, pollock, and ling hovered over the Doria like bees on a hive harvesting her bounty of algae and bait fish. Sally and Gary caught a glimpse of a swift-swimming dusky shark who had been patrolling its domain. It darted off at the sight of the interlopers. The wreck was pocked with thousands of portholes that sprouted countless sea anemones, and portions of her amidships were shrouded in tattered fishing nets. The ghostly appearance of the once grande dame of the transatlantic fleet brought a lump to Sally Wahrmann's throat.
She could not help but wonder what it must have been like to be aboard her on that panic-stricken night of July 25, 1956, when the Swedish liner Stockholm suddenly appeared out of the heavy fog and stabbed her reinforced bow deep into the Doria's starboard flank. It was a lingering death. Fifty-one people died, but more than eleven hundred escaped from the sinking ship. It took eleven hours for the Andrea Doria to reluctantly succumb to her fate. The plucking of survivors from the stricken ship that night is still considered the greatest sea rescue of the twentieth century. Sally surveyed the scene as she hovered over the recumbent, silent lady and felt as if she were walking on hallowed grounds. Sally was one of the few who dared the dangerous elements and the laws of physics to visit the Doria, and each time she felt honored.
Gary Gentile had first discovered the cache of gold, silver, and precious stones in the first-class gift shop on a previous dive. Gentile was intimate with the ship's layout, having studied its plans and made dozens of forays down its darkened passages. He was generous with his expertise of the ship with those he thought worthy, and he thought Gary Gilligan was worthy. This was to be his second excursion into the gift shop. Sally also begged him to take her there. Gilligan had confidence in Sally's ability and agreed to buddy up with her.
Sally and Gary Gilligan knew the Florida contingent was supposed to be making only an exploratory dive, so they would not run into them inside the ship. After all, Bielenda had given his customary talk to beginners before hooking into the wreck: visit the shallow end of the wreck -- the Promenade Deck. Since the wreck lay on its starboard side, all the corridors were vertical shafts, and the staircases were all muck-filled labyrinths, too much of a challenge to first-time explorers of the wreck.
Bielenda was also a proponent of "progressive penetration," a hotly debated subject in the wreck-diving community. In progressive penetration, divers make successively deeper forays inside the ship, familiarizing themselves with its layout. In theory, several dives were necessary on a wreck before deep penetration could be made. Progressive-penetration divers also eschewed employing dive reels, handheld spools of line. Cave divers had pioneered the dive-reel practice, and most wreck divers religiously used the reels: the end of the line was secured outside the wreck, and line was spent upon entering the ship, laying out an escape route.
Bielenda believed, and expounded upon with little prompting, that dive reels were an unreliable crutch for divers. They were great for cave divers because they could run out several hundred feet of line over limestone and not worry about them being cut, but it was different inside a wreck. Lines could easily be snagged and cut on the sharp edges found inside sunken ships. Because of oxidation, steel corroded away to razor-sharp edges, which meant that a wreck diver would have to spend an inordinate amount of time tying off every several feet so that one cut in the line would not mean disaster.
Reel lines were also aesthetically unsightly. Most popular wrecks had become "spaghetti cities" with all the abandoned penetration lines laid out and left behind. There was also a hefty bit of machismo among progressive-penetration adherents, not unlike among mountain climbers who forgo the use of fixed ropes on ascents.
At the Promenade Deck, Bielenda would lecture, first-time Doria divers could get a feel for the wreck and get accustomed to the low visibility and the swift currents that buffet her. Bielenda made a point to the assembled listeners: this was not Florida.
"I gave them my pat speech," he said, "that their first dive on her should be just a touch dive to dispel the myths of diving the Doria, reducing it to just another dive."
Bielenda used to reason back then, "You think you know, but you don't know what a diver will do once they are on the wreck. Of course I know now that a wreck diver is gonna do whatever they want to. I could only hope that maybe some of them will go down with some of my words of warning, but most of them won't. And in Ormsby's case, he definitely paid me no heed."
Gimbel's Hole was a wide opening cut out by underwater adventurer, cinematographer, and department-store heir Peter Gimbel. The hole had been the double doors of the first-class gangway, where the passengers entered the vessel. Gimbel and his crew had broken the portholes out, burned off the hinges, secured a chain through the portholes, and pulled out the doors for a 1981 documentary, an effort that had almost killed Gimbel. During one of the dives Gimbel took an oxygen toxicity hit and had to be pulled from within the wreck and up to the surface by a fellow diver. Gimbel would later say that the shipwreck had a "malevolent spirit."
Sally and Gary dropped down the corridor shaft through a jungle of hanging cables and wires. At one point, fifty feet in, the corridor branches off aft to the first-class dining room and forward to the chapel. The first-class dining room, located near the center of the ship to provide the most stability for the wealthy diners, was the mother lode for divers seeking china. Hence, the corridor just inside Gimbel's Hole was the most logical entry point for divers seeking artifacts.
Below the branch-off point, Sally and Gary had to duck under some collapsed beams dropping into an area that fell off to a watery blackness. From there they had to rely on their depth gauges to bring them to a spot on the wall at 223 feet. The room was once glass-enclosed. Shelves from the gift shop had slid down, dumping their contents onto the walls. That was where Gary and Sally began to dig.
Sally was shoulder to shoulder with Gary when they started digging through the muck for the precious artifacts. While she was concentrating on digging through the now billowing silt, something big suddenly slammed into Sally Wahrmann.
"At the time I didn't know what it was," she said. "Whatever it was, it really whacked me hard, it was all over me. It was almost like I got socked in the jaw. My regulator got knocked out of my mouth, my mask flooded, I lost my buoyancy, and I went barreling down to the bottom of the corridor coming to rest in a pile of rotting wood and debris."
Stunned, Sally was still able to get her regulator back in her mouth, then she cleared her mask of the invading seawater. It was no small task, but Sally had presciently secured her mask to her face by pulling her neoprene hood over the mask strap, a practice Bielenda ardently endorsed. Had she not had the mask under her hood, she would probably have lost her mask, her underwater vision?and any hope of escaping death from deep inside the ship.
Sally frantically tried to orient herself to where she was. Telling herself to calm down, she located the telltale stream of air bubbles spent from her regulator in the silt-blackened waters, which told her which way was up. Following the bubbles and making a slow, cautious ascent, she was finally able to make out the faint green glow of light from the surface. The glow of light was no bigger than the circumference of a tablespoon but its welcome sight added to the flood of adrenaline that was furiously pumping through her system. Sally was sucking down air at an alarming rate. She knew she had to get out of there -- and fast.
Sally swam up and out of the hole, "faster than I should have," and thought about heading right for the anchor upline and to the surface. She hesitated and thought that whatever had slammed into her might have got her buddy. Without giving it another thought, Sally reentered Gimbel's Hole. Almost immediately she saw a bright beam from a diving light coming up at her. Sally held her breath, and Gary Gilligan emerged from the darkness.
Gilligan could see that Sally was excited, her eyes still wide with fear. "She kept waving her arms and pointing to her depth gauge. The needle was nailed at two hundred fifty-three-feet, way deeper than I had been. All I could think was 'Fuck! What happened to her?'
Weighed down with a bag full of artifacts, Gilligan followed Sally to the anchor line, just twenty to thirty feet away, and up one hundred thirty feet to their first decompression stop at the forty-foot depth.
Upon alighting on the wreck, Deans and Delotto, not finding Ormsby at the tie-in point, shrugged to each other their ignorance of his whereabouts and proceeded with their dive plan. They dropped into the wide-open Promenade Deck and followed the vertical teak decks aft. Deans noticed that no stirred-up silt billowed in the darkened passage, a sure indication that no one had been there before them. Deans, at that moment, knew that Ormsby was not following their dive plan.
Reaching the one-third limit of their air supply, they retraced their way back to the anchor line, where Deans indicated to his buddy that he was going over to the hole to take a peek in. Delotto gave him the okay signal, then started his ascent. Delotto was a good ten years older than Deans and Ormsby, and he had made it quite clear before the expedition set sail that he would be diving conservatively. Deans kicked over to the hole and dropped in eighteen minutes into his dive. He immediately saw a light. Dropping down deeper into the hole, he then saw Ormsby, and that he was in trouble.
Ormsby, floating faceup, was tangled in cables. His regulator gave off intermittent trails of bubbles, and his eyes were shut. Deans cautiously came down behind him and shook him. The response he got was, in his words, "not from a highly cognitive individual but from a person that was unconscious."
Deans told himself to stay calm, stopped, looked, and tried to assess the situation. Seeing the amount of cable wrapped around Ormsby's body reminded Deans of a fork that had been stuck in a plate of spaghetti and twisted. Deans tried to release his friend's weight belt, but because the two quick-release buckles were cinched too tight, Deans could not get the belt off. Every pull just torqued John's body. Deans pulled frantically on the cables and cut at them with his knife -- all to no avail. He remembers saying to himself, "There's no fucking way, he's dead, and there's no fucking way I'm getting him out." With tears welling in his eyes he reluctantly swam out of the hole and made his ascent.
Deans, pulling himself hand over hand up the anchor line, ran into divers Gary Gilligan and Sally Wahrmann. Deans pulled out his writing slate and quickly scrawled, "HELP BUDDY STUCK IN HOLE." Gilligan nodded his understanding, then Deans swam to the traverse line at fifty feet and followed it under the boat. He made it to the weighted end and swam up the line, reaching the surface amidships.
It was an extremely dangerous chance to take, making that ascent without decompressing. But Deans knew if he did not spend much time on the surface and quickly returned to the depths to decompress, he might be spared from getting bent.
At the starboard side of the Wahoo, Deans spit out his regulator and called to someone on deck that John was stuck in the hole and they had to get him out now. He put his regulator back in his mouth, descended the decompression line, and switched to the oxygen regulator while looking above him, all the time thinking, "Come on, guys, get someone down here!"
Deans hovered in the water at fifty feet thinking about what else he could do. He looked at his pressure gauge and saw he had about one thousand pounds, or about one-third of his air supply, left. He knew he had to go back down to the wreck to try one more time to help John, even though the situation looked hopeless, or he could never live with himself.
Rick Jaszyn, at his thirty-foot hang, saw Deans down below him. He vividly remembers how Billy punched the palm of his hand in frustration. Then Rick saw something that was a revelation.
"He was ten to twenty feet below me, and I saw the wire hanging off the manifold of his tanks. I put two and two together. I had seen that spaghetti nest of wire in the hole, and I realized that Billy and one of his buddies must have gotten tangled up in it."
Deans was back at John's side in minutes, but he saw no more air bubbling from the exhaust ports of the regulator. John Ormsby was not going to make it out alive.
On the anchor line at their first decompression stop at forty feet. Sally had tried to make Gary understand what happened via sign language. Gary recalled that he was never aware that Sally had disappeared. Engrossed in his digging and engulfed in a cloud of blinding silt from the effort, he thought she was beside him until near departure time, when he checked his gauges and noticed Sally was not there. That didn't particularly worry him since they had agreed beforehand that if one got "weirded out" or narced (suffered nitrogen narcosis), he or she would exit and wait at the entrance to the hole. On the anchor line he was trying to figure out what Sally was telling him.
At the stop Sally and Gary were surprised to see Billy Deans swim up to them with a writing slate. Then Sally realized what had happened. What had slammed into her was John Ormsby, and now he was trapped inside Gimbel's Hole, two hundred feet beneath the surface.
Gary Gilligan grabbed the slate and swam up another ten feet. He got fellow crew member Craig Stemitez's attention. Craig was just finishing up his last decompression and most critical stop at the ten-foot mark. Craig swam down and read the slate. Realizing the gravity of the situation, Craig took the slate and broke off his last stop, risked getting bent, and headed for the surface to get help from the Wahoo. Stemitez was unaware that the Wahoo had already been alerted by Deans, who had totally blown off his decompression to get word topside of his buddy's predicament.
Aboard the Wahoo, Gary Gentile had his tanks rigged and ready to go for his second dive of the day. As soon as word reached him that someone was stuck in Gimbel's Hole, Gentile jumped into his suit and quickly strapped on his tanks. Gentile remembers that Janet Bieser was like a pit-crew chief and took charge of getting Gary into the water as quickly as possible. Captain Janet zipped up his suit, snapped on his light, handed him equipment, stuffed his hands in his gloves, hooked up his inflator hose to his dry suit, and helped him on with his neoprene hood.
All set to go, Gary had just made it to the rail to make his entry when Steve Bielenda pressed a tank and a regulator under his arm. Gentile had been so focused on getting ready and into the water that he was unaware Bielenda had together a rig to be passed to Ormsby.
Bielenda told Gentile to remember to pass the tank to Ormsby butt end first. The Wahoo's skipper did not want a grasping panic-stricken diver taking another one with him. Within six minutes of getting word of Ormsby's predicament, Gentile was furiously swimming down to the wreck.
Once again Sally Wahrmann and Gary Gilligan saw another diver fly by them. But this time it was an act of heroics and not one of greed. Ironically, however, the two were linked.
Gentile shot down the line faster than he had ever done before. Fortunately the visibility was excellent, with no current to battle and the Wahoo tied off within sight of the hole. In one sweeping movement Gentile was over the hole and dropping in. His first thought upon entering the hole was "Where am I going?" In the pandemonium aboard the Wahoo, neither Gentile nor anyone else had considered where Ormsby was in the long, wide, gaping labyrinth.
Since it was midday and the bright July sun was high overhead, plenty of light was streaming down into the depths, illuminating the entrance to the hole more than usual. Still, overhangs and collapsed bulkheads and hanging cables obstructed the light. Letting his negative buoyancy carry him deeper into the hole, Gary followed his sweeping light. Almost immediately he caught a flash, a glimmer of light below him and to his right. His searching light caught some shiny metal. Pointing his powerful beam in the direction of the flash, Gentile saw the now upside-down body of John Ormsby. His light also caught the figure of the hovering Billy Deans.
"I saw Billy -- and this is the spooky thing," Gentile later remembered. "He pushed away from Ormsby, and Ormsby's arms reached out to clutch at him. Billy backed up and I dropped in between them. Billy was out of time and low on air. He gave me a signal that he was out of there. But seeing that movement by Ormsby, I thought he was still alive. Of course later I realized he was already dead. Seeing him hanging in that awkward position should have been the tip-off. An alive and conscious diver would have been upright."
By this time Ormsby's regulator had slipped out of his mouth. Gentile shoved the regulator from the spare tank that Bielenda had given him into Ormsby's vacant mouth. Ormsby did not take a breath. Gentile pushed the purge button on the regulator forcing air into Ormsby's mouth and began punching his chest trying to get him to breath. The air just bubbled out around his lips. Gentile then held the back of Ormsby's head in one hand and the regulator in the other and repeated the purging process. Here, fifty feet inside the hole, it was pitch-black. In his efforts to revive the lifeless diver, Gary's light had dropped from his grip and hung limply from his wrist lanyard and spun in the water, giving a strobe effect to the already eerie scene.
After about two minutes of futilely trying to get Ormsby to breathe, Gary Gentile realized that there was no hope for him. The arm movement had just been a reflex motion when Deans pushed off. Since he had almost twenty minutes more of bottom time, Gary decided he would retrieve the body. Taking out his knife, he started to slice away at the one-inch cables. He managed to cut a couple away but quickly realized the knife would not suffice. Gentile had another idea. He removed a hundred-pound lift bag from Ormsby's harness, filled it with air, then watched as the bag struggled to lift Ormsby. The body did not budge.
Gentile then began to contemplate his own situation. This was his second dive of the day, and he could only guess at his surface interval, which was certainly not long enough to stave off the problem of residual nitrogen in his system. Prior to the emergency dive to rescue Ormsby, Gary had judiciously planned for a dive three hours later than his unexpected rescue dive.
He made his escape from the hole and began the long ascent back up the anchor line. Only then did he realize that in his haste to enter the water he had not put on his thermal underwear under his dry suit. The forty-degree waters began to take their toll. Gary remembered shivering violently on his long decompression hangs.
On his hang, another diver came down the line. He shoved a slate in front of Gary's faceplate: "What do we do now?" Gary took the slate and wrote, "Get hacksaws." The other diver read it and apparently did not comprehend what it meant and quickly scribbled, "Is he alive?" Gary just shook his head.
Collapsing on the deck of the Wahoo under the weight of all his gear and thoroughly exhausted from the ordeal and depleted of adrenaline, Gentile was now also hypothermic.
Sally Wahrmann had made an unplanned visit to the very bottom. The Doria lay in 235 feet, but because the mammoth hull had settled deep into the sand, another eighteen feet of her lay beneath the bottom. Sally could only guess what her decompression stops should be. Pushing her air supply, Sally spent over two hours hanging at depths of forty, thirty, twenty, and ten feet. Dehydrated, numbed by the cold water, and exhausted by the harrowing experience of near death, she climbed aboard the Wahoo and into the waiting arms of Captain Bielenda.
Everybody aboard the boat was concerned about her and her unexplained long hangs, not knowing that the collision with Ormsby had sent her to the bottom, thereby forcing her to extend her decompression stops.
Bielenda asked if she was upset by Ormsby's death. Sally replied, "Steve, if he was alive on this boat now, I'd stab the son of a bitch with my knife."
A diver usually enters Gimbel's Hole feetfirst, slowly dropping in. Ormsby must have gone in headfirst. Apparently he did not have enough buoyancy to sustain a slow and safe penetration. Speeding down the corridor, Ormsby must have aimed for a protruding bulkhead to grab something to stop himself. What he got was a handful of electrical cables. But the cables pulled loose and cascaded on top of him, adding to his weight. Ormsby plummeted down to his collision with the unsuspecting Wahrmann.
After sending Sally Wahrmann to the bottom, Ormsby managed to swim, despite being ensnared by cable, up from the 223-foot depth to 206 feet. But then he was hopelessly snared.
Gilligan and Wahrmann never saw the struggling or unconscious Ormsby when they exited the dark and silted corridor. By the time Deans and Delotto arrived at Gimbel's Hole, Gary and Sally were already making their slow ascent up the anchor line.
Back aboard the Wahoo, Ormsby's death cast a pall over the expedition. Bielenda notified the U.S. Coast Guard about the fatality. If someone was hurt or lost, the Coast Guard would have dispatched a chopper or cutter, but since the death was confirmed, there was no need for an emergency trip far out into the ocean at the taxpayers' expense. The Wahoo was instructed to recover the body.
Bielenda was unwilling to risk a nighttime recovery of the body. As Captain Janet Bieser said, "You never send live marines up the hill to get the dead ones." Divers Rick Jaszyn and Gary Gentile were given the grim task of recovering Ormsby's body from the hold of the Doria the next day.
In his panic-stricken struggle to free himself from the jungle of wires and cable, Ormsby had wrapped himself cocoonlike in solid-core wire. Knives were useless. Fortunately, a pair of heavy-duty bolt cutters was aboard the Wahoo.
When Jaszyn and Gentile got to the bottom, they secured a seventy-five-foot line to the anchor line with a carabiner and took the free end into the hole with them. Reaching Ormsby's body, they slipped the free end onto one of his D rings on his harness, so that once his body was cut free, it would be tethered to the anchor line.
Jaszyn and Gentile began to cut away at the cables on either side of the body. A few minutes into the effort Gary felt a tug on his tanks. He knew immediately he was snagged in the cables. He froze and started to flash his light at his dive buddy. Rick looked over and seeing Gary pointing his thumb to his back, quickly understood the predicament. Rick swam over and freed Gary.
"It was a scary couple of minutes for me," Gentile would later relate, "but one thing you learn in wreck diving, when you get tangled, you have to remain calm, because twisting and fighting will only make it worse. When you have a buddy there, you let him do the work."
Gentile and Jaszyn created a cloud of silt in their effort to free the body. Jaszyn was amazed how tightly Ormsby was wrapped in the cable. He could not even get his finger between the cable and Ormsby's dry suit, so he had to cut the suit to get at the cable. While he worked to free the body, Ormsby's face was never more than six inches away from his. He and Ormsby were the same age and had been friends. It was hard for Rick to set aside his emotions. It was a "shitty job," but John Ormsby had a family, Jaszyn had to remind himself, and they could not just leave John behind like that.
Once they had gotten most of the cables cut free, Gentile snapped another lift bag to a D ring on the body and inflated it, figuring they could now raise the body out of the hole. They couldn't.
Gentile then noticed that a cable had been snagged by a brass spring-gated clip, or "suicide clip," that Ormsby had rigged to his harness to hang tools from. It was a telling moment for Gentile. He now knew what had happened to Ormsby. The cable that snaked up his leg to his back must have prevented Ormsby from escaping, causing him to struggle and entangle himself even more.
Gentile cut that last cable loose, and the body immediately began to rise. The body was not precisely under the hole opening and came up on the wrong side of a protruding bulkhead. The body and the lift bag got lodged in the ceiling. Both divers were exhausted from their efforts, and Gentile remembers how he was overbreathing his regulator and he got "real scared." Gentile and Jaszyn threw their hands up and exited the hole.
Both men lay back on the flat side of the wreck and tried to catch their breath. Gentile was gasping. Jaszyn gave his buddy the palmsdown relax signal. After resting on the hull of the ship for about two minutes, they finally regained their composure. Looking at each other, they knew what they had to do. They reentered the wreck.
Gentile deflated the lift bag enough so the body began to drop. They then pulled it over from under the bulkhead, put more air in the bag, and as Gentile recalled, "the body went up and just sailed away."
Emerging from the hole, Jaszyn and Gentile reached the anchor line to see the carabiner-tethered line sliding up the anchor line. At the other end was John Ormsby's body. The two divers knew their job was done.
Crewmates Donny Schnell and Craig Stemitez fired up the inflatable boat and sped out to the bobbing lift bag that served as a watery tombstone for the Florida diver. Ormsby had been underwater for more than a day, and rigor mortis had set in. Stemitez grabbed the lift bag and dragged it over to the boat. One of Ormsby's gloved hands popped out of the water and smacked Stemitez in the face. The shocked Stemitez let go of the lift bag, its snap broke, and the body plummeted back down to the bottom.
A diver sent back down found the tether and hauled the body back up. If the body had not been secured to the anchor line by Gentile and Jaszyn, it would have been lost to the sea forever.
Bielenda sent the crew and clients all forward to the bow once the body was on deck and asked Neal Watson to assist. Gary Gilligan remembers the rest all watched from afar while Bielenda and Watson struggled to pull the gear-laden body out of the water from the dive platform onto the open stern area of the Wahoo.
They removed only the tanks. Bielenda had been through body recoveries before and knew the less tampering with the body the better, knowing full well investigators would want to see the body as found.
Ormsby's legs were still wrapped in cable. His arms were fully extended in the rigor mortis pose. Bielenda conferred with a diver who was a veterinarian, who told him the arms could be bent then tied to the torso. Blood was in Ormby's mask, and a bloody froth was coming from his mouth. Once the body was stuffed into a sleeping bag and the deck washed of blood, everyone relaxed. All aboard made more dives on the wreck, including Deans and Delotto.
The Coast Guard instructed the Wahoo that once their dive operations were complete, they were to proceed to New Harbor, Block Island.
When they arrived at midnight at the Block Island Coast Guard Station, a cutter out of Point Judith, Rhode Island, was waiting. The body was placed in a body bag and removed to the cutter. The commander of the station was called in, apparently not pleased at having being summoned from bed.
"He was ticked off," Bielenda recalled, "and came in barking orders. First he wanted a detailed report from Billy Deans and Lou Delotto. As master of the boat, I told them to make it in a few sentences because I did not want them to get diarrhea of the mouth and start speculating."
To the continued irritation of the Coast Guard officer, Bielenda reviewed the statement. The Wahoo then lay up at the ferry dock. Two hours later another Coast Guard officer came aboard and told Bielenda that they were to stay put until an investigator from the Rhode Island State Police Homicide Squad could come over and interview the crew and divers.
In the wee hours of the morning, the crew was questioned one by one about the accident by a detective in the cabin of the Wahoo. According to Bielenda, the detective had an "attitude." He was a diver who believed that sport divers had no business diving below the accepted limit of 130 feet, and that this is what happened when they failed to observe those limits.
Bielenda was interviewed first. The detective then dismissed him and called in Janet Bieser. Bielenda said he had no intention of leaving since he was captain of the Wahoo and had the right to hear everything that everyone had to say aboard his vessel. After a heated exchange the Rhode Island detective relented and Bielenda sat through all the ensuing interviews.
When Sally's turn came, she was surprised when the detectives asked if she had read Ormsby's log, checking to see if he was qualified for such a dangerous dive. Sally Wahrmann suppressed a smile and answered yes, she had indeed read his log. She didn't add that it was the only one she had read and that she had studied it "just to bust his balls."
After three hours, the detective concluded his official business. As he walked away from the boat, Bielenda could not contain his curiosity. He called after him, asking what would happen next in the investigation. The detective stopped, quietly walked back a few steps, and solemnly looking at Bielenda said, "This is the last time you'll hear from me." The detective spun on his heels and strode off, disappearing into the early-morning crowd of tourists who flocked to the docks in search of nautical ambience on the resort island.
Upon returning to Long Island, Bielenda did, however, get one more call from the authorities regarding the demise of John Ormsby.
The Rhode Island coroner wanted to know why John Ormsby's arms were suspiciously bound to his torso by rope.
In July 1985 it had been twenty-nine years since the disastrous sinking of the Andrea Doria, yet the "Mount Everest of wreck diving" had claimed yet another victim. John Ormsby was not the first diver to perish on her, and he would not be the last. As Captain Steve Bielenda and Billy Deans both remarked, it was the first death in which greed, "china fever," was a factor. Such china fever would form a troubling pattern in Andrea Doria diving deaths, which would reach their tragic peak thirteen years later.
Copyright © 2001 by Kevin McMurray
Adventure and Death Diving the Andrea Doria
Adventure and Death Diving the Andrea Doria
Considered the Mt. Everest of diving, the Andrea Doria is the ultimate deepwater wreck challenge. Over the years, a small but fanatical group of extreme scuba divers have investigated the Andrea Doria, pushing themselves to the very limits of human endurance to explore her -- and not all have returned. Diver Kevin McMurray takes you inside this elite club with a hard, honest look at those who go deeper, farther, and closer to the edge than others would ever dream.
Deep Descent is the riveting true story of the human spirit overcoming human frailty and of fearsome, mortal risks traded for a hard-core adrenaline rush. Chronicling these adventures in his page-turning narrative and in dozens of dramatic photos, McMurray draws us deeper into the cold heart of the unforgiving sea, giving us a powerful vision of a place to which few will ever have the skills -- or the courage -- to go.