Book Review: Trapped Under the Sea by Neil Swidey

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 tunnel 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 Boston Globe Magazine renders it all in coherent detail.

trappedThe 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

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