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Fatal Depth -- Deep Sea Diving, China Fever, and the Wreck of the Andrea Doria

by Joe Haberstroh
Paperback 2004 Lions Press, 254 pages
ISBN-10 1-59228-304-7
ISBN-13 978-1592283040
9.0 x 6.0

Fatal Depth -- Deep Sea Diving, China Fever, and the Wreck of the Andrea Doria centers around five separate diving fatalities from a single boat, the Seeker. Author Joe Haberstroh, a columnist for Long Island's Newday, had reported on the accidents when they happened during the 1998 and 1999 seasons, but is not a scuba diver himself. Haberstroh's motivation for writing the book, he says, was examining the motivation and passionthat drives people to dive the wreck.

The Andrea Doria, of course, is the famous 700-foot luxury oceanliner that sank 45 miles off the coast of Nantucket in July of 1956 after a still disputed collision with another liner, the Stockholm. Its resting place in 225 feet of usually cold, turbulent and murky water made it a dangerous, demanding and challenging, but still doable, dive for a small community of expert divers. Some considered it the "Mount Everest" of diving, others as a source of artifacts such as the ship's china (hence the reference to "China Fever" in the book's title), and others a combination of both.

Diving the Andrea Doria, however, is complex enough to have claimed a good number of lives over the years, and five deaths happened in rapid succession during charter trips by the Seeker, together with the Wahoo, one of the pre-eminent dive boats to offer trips to the Andrea Doria. The book, in chronological order, examines the backgound and circumstances that led to the fatalities, which is not an easy tasks as Haberstroh compiled information from reports and interviews, with the primary source being Dan Crowell, the Seeker's captain himself.

So Haberstroh tells the stories of Craig Sicola, an experienced diver who became obsessed with retrieving China from the Andrea Doria and penetrated the wreck against strict advice. Criticized for inadequate equipment (a unsuitable up-line mostly), he surfaced fatally bent after a solo dive. Richard Roost, a very experienced diver in his mid-40s, was considered competent to solo-dive and penetrate, but was lost inside the ship where he apparently lost consciousness and drowned. Vince Napoliello, a young broker and expert diver who displayed odd behavior duirng a dive, became separated, and came up without vitals. Notable here that one of his deco bottles was mislabeled, though the diver himself knew the contents. Chris Murley, a big man (6'8" - 350 pounds) in his 40s with health issues, an obsession to penetrate the wreck, and little experience (under 100 dives) did one dive, but then died on the surface before doing the second. Charlie McMurr, 52, and an experienced diver, who aborted a dive in rough conditions and was later found wedged dead against the wreck.

Without being judgemental, Haberstroh reports on the questions raised by the deaths. Why so many on one boat? What is the responsibility of the individual versus the responsibility of instructors, and of the crew and captain? What are the procedures? Are divers without proper qualifications allowed to do those dangerous dives? The author presents all sides, examines some of the criticisms and ommissions, but also the case for assuming that divers at this level know what to do. The author also contemplates the role of the Coast Guard which is called to action without actually having authority and jurisdiction.

"Fatal Depth" is, and does read like, a book by a reporter who became interested in a topic he covered and decided to expand his interest into a full book. While it is obvious that he is not a diver himself, this neither clouds his judgement in describing the events, nor does the writing come across as technically shallow (there are a number of editing glitches, though). The book does not seek to get into technical issues of diving (I don't think there's a single mention of a dive computer), but clearly concentrates on simply examining the background and motivations of the divers, and while it touches on questions of requirements and rules (or the lack therefof), lecturing is not this book's mission.

Basically, what Haberstroh offers is two things. First, another account of diving the Andrea Doria, and it's a good one, well balanced and always interesting. Second, a look into the motivations of divers on the one side, and the way a tour operator, like the captain of the Seeker, views his responsibilities. At times, Haberstroh seems aggravated and frustrated over skipper Dan Crowell's "I am just the bus driver" attitude and apparent unwillingess to add or change rules. "Neither of us looked forward to the meeting," says the author of an interview with Crowell. And while Haberstroh reports on a liability lawsuit Chris Murley's estate that was dismissed in 2003, there are no conclusions and no moral of the story.

Overall, 15 divers perished attempting to dive the Andrea Doria. A full third happened in the two years covered by "Fatal Depth," essentially when the haydays of Doria diving were already past. There have been three additional fatalities since, but the wreck has deteriorated to a degree where the superstructure is almost totally collapsed and things have drastically changed from the conditions described in Doria books, including this one. -- C. H. Blickenstorfer, scubadiverinfo.com

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