Dive to the Battleship "OSTFRISLAND"
The dive was planned for July 31 1999. Rick Atkins set up the trip on the dive boat "Deep Explorer". He had set up the boat, I was the one that asked Dave Widen and Jim Cobb to do support.
I had asked Dave Widen and Jim Cobb to do support on this dive as we had
started VBTECH together (tech diving meetings to teach ourselves once a month).
We each brought something useful to the group and we could always come to
a decision on the dive perimeters, with the end result being safety.
I had planned four major dives in 9 days for my vacation, the Ostfrisland was the second dive trip of the week set for July 31 on a Saturday. I had planned to dive the Andrea Doria on the dive boat "Seeker" on July 27-29 and then drive down home (9 hrs) mix my gas and get on the boat for a 2 a.m. departure. It was a risky plan with so much traveling and such. But the "Deep Explorer" was only available on that date. I had planned to do 5 dives on the Doria to depths of 240ft and then the Ostfrisland had a depth of 380 ft. Then on Sunday August 1st I would drive down to Hatteras,NC , dive the Malchase 200 ft on Aug. 2nd , and then dive the EM Clark 250ft on Aug. 3rd aboard the "Miss Lindsey".
I had everything pre-planned, as I would not be in town for any last minute questions about the trip, gas was ordered and everyone was set. They would all meet me at the boat.
My Doria trip caused me some mental setbacks. A diver named Charlie McGurr had died on my trip and I was one of the divers that had recovered the body. I cannot say if I'm weak minded or if all men feel as I do, but to recover a body is unsettling to say the least. Charlie was the 3rd diver I have seen die on a trip and as I see it, no one is to blame on any of these deaths, they all could have been prevented by the victims themselves. But I believe in God and that when he calls your number there is nothing you or anyone can do.
The Doria trip can be read in my web site www.capt-jt.com .
Due to the death and a mechanical problem the Doria trip was cut one day short and we began our drive home on Wednesday the 28th late that night. My friend Jackie Smith had done all the driving through the night and as I remember it around 9 a.m., a few hundred yards ahead of us we saw a car run off the road and in a dust cloud. We pulled over to help, it was a bad wreck for sure. We did not know what had happened and we could see a car in a ditch, which had run head-on into a clolor pipe. Smoke rose from the crushed front end and as we opened the doors to get out of our Van. I had said out loud " we don't need to see this", as the vision of Charlie's body was still imbedded in our minds and had been the topic of discussion all morning. Alston Trent had yelled for me to get one of our crowbars that we use in our wreck diving to pry open the door to the wrecked car. But as I looked in the Van I could not find one, they were in the trailer locked up. So I ran to the car to help and a Nurse had pulled over to help and was with the victim, a woman in her early to mid fifties. She had short gray hair and her eyes still open, but she was dead. The nurse said there was no hope in CPR as she had some medical problem while driving which had caused her to wreck in the first place. The nurse said what it was but I can't remember it. She was pinned behind the wheel and the air bag had deployed. We could not even get her out to do CPR. So we headed back to the Van and Alston said "your right JT, we didn't need to see that."
All the rest of the way home I keep thinking about the Ostfrisland dive was my number going to come up? I sat there wondering about my own mortality. Several times on the way home I had said out loud I wasn't doing the dive and each time Jackie and Alston were there to tell me those deaths had nothing to do with me. They reminded me how I'd already been deeper before and how we had agreed that the Doria dive is much more a risk than depth alone. But mentally I was a mess, on these deep dives I believe they are much more mental than anything, all the training in the world cannot prepare one for the mental stress that a deep dive can produce. Just to boldly say you can do it is not enough, to have someone train you is a help. But the mind gets prepared at shallow depths and the greater the number of dives that one does and overcomes problems that test the mind, the better prepared you are for the deeper dives. But I was unsure of myself now, a bad thing before a deep dive.
When I had gotten home, Jim, Dave, and Rick had already heard of the death on the Doria. I had told them I recovered the body, but not to tell anyone else. I did not want to hear all the crap, which comes across on the techdiver e-mail forum. I also told them of the car wreck we saw and informed them that I may not do the dive. They all understood and agreed we would still go but no pressure would be put on me to do the dive, all things considered it would be just a boat ride.
The wreck sets some 75 miles ENE of Rudee Inlet VA Beach, VA and has only been dived 4 times that I know of. I have heard that two of the dives were done on the anchor chain that lays out in front of the wreck, which means no real dive, and 2 were done on some portion of the mid body.
On the departure of the trip Captain Wes and his mate Ann were informed of the things that had happened to me prior to the trip. Dave had laid out a plan of support that Jim and him could cover. The mate and Capt would remain on the boat should an emergency need them to act in the manner of their positions. It took 7 hrs to get to the wreck as Wes had done a dog leg to check out numbers to a new wreck that were near our path . We tried to sleep, but the boat had no ac and it was very hot. I kept thinking of things from the Doria trip.
My dive mixes were as follows, 10/60/30 bottom mix, deco mixes 32/68, 50/50 , and 100% 02 .My bottom mix tanks were double LP 104 s' filled to 3000 psi , the 32/68 was in a 40 cuft alum tank filled to 3200 psi , 50/50 was in an alum 80 cuft tank filled to 3200 psi , and 100 % 02 whips were hanging from the boat.
Rick Atkins dive mixes were as follows, 10/70/20-bottom mix, deco mixes 20/30/50, 32/68, 50/50, and 100% 02 hanging from the boat.
The support divers, Jim Cobb and Dave Widen, had both chosen 18/30/52 with 100% 02 to deco on. Jim had also added 50/50 to his dive plan, as he would be spending more time at depth than Dave would. It also gave us another gas source to use should we need it. The actual deco stops are unimportant as each one of us have different beliefs and each follows those safeties that he programs into his tables, but we all do deep stops. I for example, will run deco tables, add the deep stops, and sometimes do shorter stops at the top. The plan was for Dave to get in the water ahead of Rick and I, Dave would follow us down to 200 ft, on the way down he would watch me change off my travel mix at 70 ft ( I was on my 50/50 to start and I began my switch at 60 ft on the move).
Rick went off his travel mix at the 200ft mark. That is were we stopped long enough to exchange OK signs to each other, Dave would stay 2-4 minutes after we went out of sight and return up to do a very short deco. We had planned for Jim to start his way down at exactly 20 minutes after we left the boat and he would be waiting at 200 ft for us. Jim would then stay with us until Dave relieved him at our 10-ft stop, Dave would be pulling double support on this dive. I would like to say that most people do not understand the true roll of a support diver, by doing this chore, they put themselves in a spot that is very scary to think about. Should something go wrong, he or she (If we had a female support diver) would have to think and act in a manner that many will judge as a hero or scapegoat depending on the out come of the predicament. On these kinds of dives I will not do the dive without support divers. They are in turn part of an expedition that for some reason don't do the dive themselves, they may not be ready for the kind of stress that those depths can produce or have made a personal choice to not go beyond a self imposed depth limit. Whatever the reason they understand that it is a team effort and the dive from my point of view, will not happen without them.
When we got to the site, Wes dropped a marker buoy on it and began the task of trying to hook the wreck. After 4 attempts to hook the wreck (we did hook it on the 3rd time and it came free) we finally hooked it on the 5th time. The time to do this kind of thing even with the sliding float ball we had on the anchor line is very time consuming. Each time the hook was dropped, Wes asked me to check it, because it was my approval he wanted to hear that we had snagged the wreck, at times I was feeling a lot of predive stress and would much rather have just let someone else handle those things. Everyone looked at me for leadership and approval. I still had not said that I would do the dive, I had at one point said I was up to 80 % sure that I would.
Everyone else was a go. The stress was mounting, but I had it under control.
We could not have had better seas (2 ft) and conditions at dive time. So after the hook was in and I could not see any reason not to dive, I said I was going to do it. Dave began to gear up on the transom, Rick and I geared up on the table mounted in middle of the stern for just that purpose. Jim, Wes, and Anne helped as Dave prepared to enter ahead of us.
Then out of the blue Wes asked, "at what point do you want me to call the Coast Guard", it caught me off guard and if it had not been apparent before, it was now.
Wes had a perfect safety record on the "Deep Explorer" and was asking a correct question, just at the wrong time! You could hear a pin drop, as I explained that if nothing was heard from the safety diver in the first 20 minutes that things were going as planned.
Really if something were to happen it would be in the first 20 minutes or the last 30 minutes of the dive. Most of the accidents that I know of have always been during the descent and ascent of the dive, very few during the bottom time of the dive.
Dave entered the water at the stern, Rick rolled off the port side and I rolled off the starboard side. We all made eye contact and with the "guy nod" proceeded to the anchor line. At 60 ft I began my gas switch to my bottom mix and by 70 ft the change was complete, Dave had been following close and had insured this was done. At a little over 2 minutes we hit the 200ft depth, we all stopped and Rick did his gas switch to his bottom mix. We each exchanged OK signs and Rick started down ahead of me. I took a last look at Dave at about 215ft and he was at 200ft as we headed down out of his sight.
The temp on top was a very hot 82 degrees, at around 220ft it dropped to 46 degrees, once we broke though the thermocline, Vis was 100ft vertical and 150ft horizontal. We could see the highest part of the hull as it came up to 325ft. It was also very apparent the current was quite strong as we were stretched out like flags on a pole. Pulling ever down, Vis was awesome and as the wreck got nearer and as the bottom opened up we could see debris scattered over a large area on the bottom. The anchor line had a long bow in it as it curved to the very bottom of the wreck. At 300ft the temp changed again to a warmer 54 degrees and the current was almost nothing, then at 325ft, 50- 60ft off the wreck it came into clear view.
The thing that sends chills up a wreck divers back, a loose porthole! Unseen and untouched for 78 years free for the taking. Rick had seen it just as I did, it lay straight under us. Then without fear or thought Rick made the poorest choice I've seen him make, he let go of the anchor line and dropped down to the porthole. I do not know what he was thinking, it is always standard procedure to check the hook before leaving the anchor line. It seems that the hook will always pull when not taken notice of and at 380 ft is not were you want it to happen. Then as I continued down the anchor line, Rick was trying to swim the porthole to the anchor. I am not a big fan of swimming at this depth and to do so with the weight of a porthole is in my opinion a foolish thing. To him it was a find of a life time, but to me it was a horror to watch as I was very aware of what could happen when doing heavy work at depth. I had just helped in the recovery of Charlie McGurrs' body 3 days before and felt that a foolish action on his own part had contributed to his death. Now I watched as this same scenario was taking place and it was much more stress than I could take. Rick had already made it to the hook and was using the tie in rope on the hook to secure the porthole to the anchor line. I grabbed him on the shoulder and when he looked at me I signaled him to calm down and take his time. He seemed to suddenly realize what he had done.
Then things took a snails pace and after a brief moment we moved closer to the wreck, the hook had snagged a net that was at the bottom of the wreck, this was what I believed to be the forward engine room bulkhead. The stern is laying upside down and is broken off from the rest of the wreck at that point. Rick moved up to look inside this crack, there is at least 5 ft that separate the stern from the main part and has settled down maybe 15-20ft lower. As we looked around this area I was always looking at Rick waiting and watching for him to pass out. Rick is a very experienced diver and not prone to heavy breathing. He was very much in control of himself, but I was not sure and with the Doria trip in my mind, I called the dive. At 9 minutes bottom time on a planned max 18 minute BT dive it was over. Rick seemed a bit confused as I called the dive, but did not protest me. We had agreed two go down two will go up, no questions asked.
We had taken tables for a short BT of 14 minutes and that's what we did. Jim was not at 200ft when I got to my stop at 210ft, I had at first thought he was late, he was quick to point out on the boat however, that we were early. He was correct and I was wrong. The deco went with out any problems and I got out of the water short of doing all the deco that my tables called for. When I got on the boat Jim had already degeared and helped me on board after taking a few photos with my camera. Rick was right behind me, and Dave behind him.