Late on the afternoon of July 26, 1973, dive supervisor George Powell told us we had a serious problem. Mother had lost buoyancy and had taken on water. The canisters of sofnolime, the chemical we were using to remove the carbon dioxide from our saturation diving habitat, had flooded, leaving divers Chris DeLucchi and Don Rodocker in danger of a deadly buildup of CO2 unless it was fixed.
"Guys, we have two choices," George said. "Take new canisters down to Mother or bring Mother up."
Bring Mother up? The 24 members of our Saturation Systems dive team were exhausted from spending the last seven days to get the habitat down on the wreck. It had been a formidable task. Working from the salvage vessel Narragansett, wehad shackled a half-inch cable to a porthole opening close to the Doria's foyer doors, our planned entry point into the wreck. Supporting the cable topside was a five-foot diameter metal buoy we nicknamed Big George. This cable was our down line for Mother. The habitat had three ballast tanks that we would use, along with a braking mechanism on the cable, to slide Mother down into position.
The previous day, it had taken seven of us to pull Mother through a one-knot surface current to get the chamber in place alongside the buoy. We then recharged our cylinders for what was to be one of the most physically demanding dives any of us had ever made—seven divers on scuba lowering 21,000 pounds of steel onto the side of the Andrea Doria, 160 feet below. I remember thinking, "I'm away from my new business, in the North Atlantic, 43 degree water temperature, and were going to swim down an entire saturation diving system and tie it off on the Doria. This has to be one of the most hazardous dives ever."
Ballast control was critical. Too much negative buoyancy and Mother would sink like a rock, and with the current blowing over the wreck, we could end up over the side of the ship and land on the sand at 240 feet. Gary Gada, the diver manning the ballast tanks, did a masterful job and soon we were floating about 20 feet off the port side deck, right on target. We tied the habitat into position and Gary used the ballast tanks to lock Mother in a buoyant position. Seven tired, but elated, divers then ascended to our decompression stop at 30 feet where stage bottles of pure oxygen were waiting to help us safely offgas.
The next morning, all systems were operational, and we were ready to begin. Four of us swam down on scuba with Don and Chris, who entered Mother and went into saturation breathing the helium mixture.
After I surfaced, my next assignment was to get the cutting torches ready, but that was interrupted by the bad news about the scrubber canisters. Time was critical and we decided that the best course of action was to take fresh scrubber canisters down to Mother. The only question was: Who would get the task of swimming down the heavy transfer pot to the habitat? George lit a big cigar and gave the assignment to me and my old dive buddy, Jack McKenney.
At 8:45 PM, Jack and I walked down the ramp on the stern of the Narragansett and boarded a small boat for the trip to the anchor line. Wearing wetsuits, twin 72-cubic-foot tanks and Fenzy vests we were about to make a night dive on the Doria. My adrenaline was running high, not only in anticipation of the task at hand but because of the blue sharks that had come in to check us out during the decompression stop earlier that day. That was a concern as we entered the water and prepared to receive the 30-pound negatively buoyant transfer pot from the boat. It was so heavy that we had to suspend it from a rope. Jack and I each grabbed one end and began letting air out of our fully inflated Fenzy vests to begin our descent.
The green glow of phosphorescence was our only light for the first 100 feet. I yelled into my mouthpiece for Jack to turn on the light, he did and then turned it off again. I yelled again and he left the light on. There was nothing to see but at least the light gave me a degree of comfort. I don't like the unknown, especially at night.
Our first contact with the wreck was a large boat davit, but the habitat wasn't visible in the silty water blowing over the wreck. One rule for me when diving shipwrecks is to become familiar with the area by memorizing the location of everything, so I knew right away we were only 50 feet from Mother. However, we still needed to carry the pot across the beams on the promenade deck. One misstep here and either one of us— with the pot—could fall into the open area of the ship.
We began working our way across the beams over the entrance to the promenade deck, slowly and carefully, and at last Mother came into view. She was really eerie at night, giving off a glow from the small outside lights and a humming sound from her various systems. With narcosis coming on I felt like we had entered another dimension.
We lifted the pot into the cage and I used a wrench to bang on the entry door of Mother to let Don and Chris know we were there. I left Jack with the task of getting the pot up into Mother, removing the canisters and getting the pot ready for the return trip. I went to the main external gas bank, opened two cylinders of oxygen as George had instructed and checked the pressure on the outside panel.
A quick glance at my watch showed we were already beyond our planned bottom time. We needed to get the transfer pot back across the promenade and begin our accent. I looked for Jack, and found him with his head still up in the chamber. I grabbed his legs and pulled—the signal for "time to go." He handed me the pot, which was almost as heavy as before and we began making our way back.
We inflated the Fenzys and began our ascent pulling our way up the anchor line. Time was critical. We were into serious decompression at this point and when I looked at my pressure gauge, I only had 900 psi left. Jack had 500 psi. Our decompression tanks filled with oxygen were waiting only 160 feet away but it seemed like miles at this point. I was worried we wouldn't make it.
Then the worst happened. Jack's hand slipped off the pot. Suddenly relieved of the negative buoyancy, he shot up the line while the full weight of the pot began to drag me back to the bottom. In spite of my frantic kicking, I dropped 40 feet before I could grab the anchor line and stop my descent. Pulling as hard as I could on the line, I began creeping back toward the surface. Bubbles raced past my head in the current as I began to overbreathe my regulator, huffing and puffing but still feeling starved for air. I could see the lights of the support boat above me and I kept going. Suddenly another diver was there, reaching out to take the pot from my hand. Without thinking, I let go and began rocketing to the surface. Before I could release the gas in my Fenzy, my head hit the bottom Big George and I floated to the surface. In the chaos, Jack and I had both ascended much too fast and omitted our decompression stops.
We stripped out of our tanks and pulled ourselves into the small support boat. Grabbing for an oxygen line, I yelled at George on the Narragansett to fire up Big Blue, our topside recompression chamber. You only have a few minutes to get yourself into a chamber and head off a serious bout of DCS after a blown ascent like that. We ran up the ramp and climbed into the chamber with attendant Don Gray right behind us. I told George to take us down fast—10 minutes had already passed since we hit the surface.
The door sealed, gas flowed and we were on another dive. Only when the chamber pressure hit 60 feet and we began breathing oxygen—all without experiencing any DCS symptoms, thankfully—did I begin to relax a little. None of us talked for the longest time. Jack and I had made a lot of dives together, but this was a close one.
We took a day off following our chamber ride, but we were back at it the next. I went into saturation the following week with Don and Chris, and we cut the first entry hole in the side of the Doria. Jack and I also went back to the Doria in 1981 on the Gimbel expedition in which we succeeded in removing the foyer doors and recovered the safe.