It sounds like the plot to a far-fetched disaster movie. Five men are more than nine miles into a tunnel that dead ends. All they have for light is what they brought. They’re connected umbilical like to a breathing system because otherwise they’d lose consciousness and die from lack of oxygen. Suddenly, the breathing system fails. And, by the way, the tunnerl they’re in is some 400 feet under (yes, under) Boston Harbor.
But as Neil Swidey explains in the plainly told but engrossing Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness, that is just what happened in July 1999. He looks at almost every aspect of what led to the men being in that situation, the variety of people involved and the ramifications. In doing so, he looks at almost every aspect of the event, often through the eyes and thoughts of one of the trapped men, D.J. Gillis. And while some of the contributing factors are rather complex, the reporter for The Bowston Globe Magazine renders it all in coherent detail.
The background may be as outside the norm as the event itself. For decades, Boston Harbor had been the end point for human waste from Boston and nearly 50 other cities and towns. Half a billion gallons of sewer water and some 140,000 pounds of lightly treated sludge were being discharged into the Harbor daily. By the 1980s, the sludge had decayed and settled to the ocean floor, creating a disgusting mud known as “black mayonnaise.” A lawsuit led to a multi-billion dollar project was planned to try to clean up the harbor, including a massive sewage treatment plant on Deer Island that would be “the destination for every toilet flush in the eastern half of Massachusetts.” The project, overseen throughout by a federal judge, also included the world’s longest dead-end tunnel. Extending nearly 10 miles under Boston Harbor, it would carry treated sewer water away from Boston Harbor to discharge it deep into Massachusetts Bay.
Akin to another Boston megaproject, the Big Dig, the tunnel alone took twice as long as planned, almost a decade, and cost the general millions of additional dollars. One last step remained for the tunnel to be complete, removing 65-pound plugs that had been placed in each of 55 30-inch wide pipes leading from the side of the tunnel to risers that would actually discharge the water to protect the miners. Not only were the plugs in an area where the tunnel itself was only five feet high, they were to be removed only after taking out the extensive ventilation, electrical and transportation systems used by the miners. That meant the area also would not have enough oxygen to breathe. The solution? Use commercial deep sea divers, although they would not be able to wear the equipment they normally use.
A reader is struck not only by how jerry-rigged the solution was but how relatively harebrained it seemed. An untested breathing system designed for this task by an engineer with a small Spokane, Wash., commercial diving firm would be placed in one of two Humvees. The Humvees were connected back to back because the tunnel was too small for them to turn around, requiring one to be pointed into the tunnel and the other out. Hoses would extend from the breathing system to allow the men to walk to the side tunnels and crawl into them to remove the plugs.
Swidey takes the interesting approach of placing the moment of disaster in the book’s prologue. From that point, he traces the stories of the men and companies involved, how the plug problem arose and this particular solution was chosen, and takes the reader inside the disaster and ensuing investigation and aftermath. Thus, Trapped Under the Sea tells not only the personal aspects of the story but the institutional ones, including how not wanting to take ownership of the problem or its solution seems to have led inexorably to disaster. He makes both interesting.
The book shows the payoff of Swidey’s hundreds of hours of interviews with those involved and years of study of the project. It allows us to understand both the men and the processes. It also provides some unique insight into the men involved. In fact, weeks after reading the book I am still struck by the incident that, despite all the horror, sticks in the mind of one of the survivors, one that involves a 2½ inch strip of skin.
Given how extraordinary the event was, many readers may wonder why they never seem to have heard of it. It seems to have been swallowed up by the “important” news dominating local and national media — the effort to recover the body of John F. Kennedy, Jr., after the plane he was piloting crashed in the Atlantic Ocean off Martha’s Vineyard. As Swidey observes in his extensive notes, six columns of the front page of the next day’s Boston Globe dealt with Kennedy. The story of death and nail-biting survival involving five men trapped 400 feet under Boston Harbor was relegated to an item in the local news section.
[The breathing system] was like an eighth-grade science project gone horribly wrong.
Neil Swidey, Trapped Under the Sea
Can you tell February demolishes my motivation? This is the third post of the month, all of which have been a Weekend Edition. Despite how short it is, it always feels long. Actual posts on the horizon, though.
“You Hate It That Much?” Blog Headline of the Week
Lawsuit of the Week
- The most pleasant places to live in the continental U.S. have 153 or more pleasant days (average temp between 55 and 75 degrees and no significant rain or snowfall) each year. Sioux Falls has 59
- Hawaii is the first state to ban plastic bags at retail stores
- A record number of Americans renounced their citizenship last year
- Reporters Without Borders ranks the U.S. 46th in its 2014 World Press Freedom Index
- The collapse of big law and what it means for the medical profession
- I know this will come as (not a) suprise but just 22 percent of South Dakotans consider themselves nonreligious, compared to a 29.4 percent average nationwide, and only seven states consider themselves less liberal
- Twelve times God is a complete dick in the Old Testament
- Seven modern phobias
Awareness of my limitations used to depress me. Now it’s the foundation of everything I know.
David R. Dow, Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book About Life
Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes
- The Case for Socialized Law? (“It must be that, in the eyes of the law, there is no difference between rich and poor. If the rich have more rights—if they have fuller status as citizens—then by definition everyone else has fewer rights and lesser status.”)
- Eleanor Catton on literature and elitism (“At its best, literature is pure encounter: it resists consumption because it cannot be used up and it cannot expire.”)
Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes – Post Super Bowl Edition
- Bob Dylan’s 115th Sellout (“… only when you misunderstand Dylan can you accuse him of betraying ideals he never really had–or hasn’t had in a half century.”)
- Coca-Cola Critics Have Never Heard of ‘E Pluribus Unum’ (“…the Coke commercial was the Ghost of Christmas Future providing them a glimpse of an America that features even more people speaking languages other than English, practicing other faiths than their own and celebrating cultures they don’t understand. That scares the crap out of them.”)
Best Blog Headline of the Week
Most Mind-Blowing Blog Headline of the Week
All I really know is I don’t wanna know
Counting Crows, “Amy Hit the Atmosphere,”
This Desert Life
Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes
(Most Accurate) Blog Headline of the Week
Lawsuit of the Week
Most Interesting Criminal Trial of the Week
- British man on trial for “fellatio with a cow” decided to “try his luck with some sheep” when the cows wouldn’t cooperate
Mother of the Week
- Florida woman brings her 15-year-old daughter to NYC to pimp her out to Super Bowl fans
You’ve been sitting much too long
There’s a permanent crease in your right and wrong
Sly & The Family Stone, Title track, Stand!
Legal education has been under attack from inside and outside the legal profession for any number of years. But with the recent economic crunch and the lack of jobs, one of the targets is the Socratic method. One of the more recent attacks came in a blog post at the Chronicle of Higher Education, where two lawyers argue that continued use of the Socratic method in law schools is “indefensible.” From my standpoint, though, law school needs the Socratic method, at least for first year students.
In law schools, the Socratic method involves the professor asking a student (rarely a volunteer) questions about a particular case, principle or rule. The progression of questions tends to lead down a path of analysis to a seemingly reasonable conclusion. Then you’re likely to get a question that changes the facts slightly, a change that may challenge, if not shatter, the assumptions on which your position is based. By finding yourself on the end of the tree branch, you begin to understand and learn how to recognize what led you there. (For fairly accurate though sometimes extreme examples, watch a couple episodes of The Paper Chase.)
The blog post says practicing lawyers consider the Socratic method “a hazing ritual, a rite of passage that fosters camaraderie among members of the bar.” Sorry, but as a practicing lawyer of nearly 29 years, I’ve never viewed it that way. To me and many others, what the Socratic method does is teach you how to “think like a lawyer.” It helps you learn how to identify and examine the many potential aspects of legal problems that will arise in the real world. I believe that unless or until your mind gets that training, you lack much capacity to assess and address the problems and pitfalls a client may face. That’s why I think it’s absolutely necessary for first year law students.
The blog post contends the critical thinking skills can be taught “more effectively” through more practical efforts, such as legal writing, mock trials or clinical legal work. I agree law school needs more emphasis on “practice skills.” But nuts and bolts skills aren’t worth as much if you can’t recognize you’re taking your client to the end of a tree branch. In fact, even the report the authors cite in support of teaching more “practice ready” skills never suggests abandoning the Socratic method.
I can vouch for the fact that being on the “hot seat” during a law school class can be distressing, especially if you are unprepared. At the same time, it focuses the brain on analysis and the ramifications of your assumptions and positions.
A lawyer’s not a person who knows the law; a lawyer is a person who’s learned how to find the law that’s needed in a given situation. And also how to read it, a correlative that some lawyers overlook, to the sorrow of their clients.
George Higgins, Sandra Nichols Found Dead
Interesting Reading in the Interweb Tubes
- You’re Richer Than You Think (“… we struggle to pay for the lifestyles we think we deserve when billions struggle to live. The inconvenient truth is that most of us have more than we need and spend more than we should.”)
- Happiness and Its Discontents (“[We can] feel so anxious about feeling anxious that when we catch ourselves getting a little stirred up, a little excited, even in a good way, we end up suppressing our feelings because we fear that our ardor might deliver us straight into the lair of … anxiety.”)
- Fifty States of Fear (“The interesting thing about the security measures that are taken today is that they provide, as [Erik} Prince puts it, the ‘illusion of security’; another way to put it is that they provide ‘security theater.’ Or perhaps it is actually a theater of fear.”)
Blog Headline of the Week
Most Unusual Medical Finding of the Week
Most Interesting Study of the Week
- Whether death row inmate accepts last meal and how much they eat may be indicator of guilt or innocence
A life spent at one’s desk is a life alone.
Donna Tartt, Nov. 14, 2013