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globe magazine | Aug. 16, 2009

The way out of Boston Harbor

Trapped under the sea, near the end of a dank, dark 9.5-mile-long sewer tunnel, three men were horrified to discover two of their fellow divers dead. They weren’t sure what had happened. But they knew this much: If they didn’t make a quick escape, they would be next.

Part 2 of 2

Dave Riggs wanted to do the right thing. But can something be right if it’s likely to leave you dead? “We need to go!” he shouted through his face mask.

Riggs was one of three commercial divers stranded near the end of a pitch-black, oxygen-deficient tunnel, hundreds of feet below the ocean floor, more than 9 miles from shore. They had just backtracked 1,200 feet along slippery terrain to get from the very end of the tunnel to their Humvee, only to make a crushing discovery about the two other divers on their team. Tim Nordeen was slumped over in the driver’s seat of the Humvee, while Billy Juse was lying just outside the passenger’s side, his legs under the vehicle and his torso pinned in the narrow space between the door and the tunnel’s side wall.

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Riggs assumed Tim and Billy had been felled by the mixed-gas breathing system they’d been given for their high-stakes journey into the earth on July 21, 1999. It’s the same system that he, DJ Gillis, and Donald “Hoss” Hosford had been breathing off while they were at the end of the empty tunnel, removing safety plugs so the Deer Island sewage treatment process could finally work. They’d survived, thanks to Hoss’s quick instincts back there, switching them to their emergency high-pressure air at the first sign of trouble. Still, their prospects for making it out of the tunnel alive were dwindling fast.

They couldn’t trust their main breathing system, since the regulator atop its liquid oxygen tank was now as frozen and glistening as a snow cone. They couldn’t trust their main backup system, since the canisters of air strapped to the Humvee roof had been opened by Billy or Tim before they went down and therefore couldn’t be ruled out as the source of bad air. And while they knew they could trust the canister of air they had dragged back with them on a wobbly aluminum boat, it was about to expire. They were burning through it fast, especially since Riggs’s malfunctioning face mask was blasting so much air that he had to kink and unkink his hose for every breath.

Riggs looked over at DJ, who was doing everything he could to try to revive Billy, short of the suicidal move of removing his own face mask and attempting mouth to mouth. He looked through the Humvee window to see Hoss trying to revive Tim from the driver’s seat. Riggs, who had a 1-year-old and 4-year-old back in Nevada, was sure that Billy and Tim were already dead - probably had been since the moment Hoss lost communication with them half an hour earlier. Riggs was just as sure that if he and Hoss and DJ didn’t get the hell out of the tunnel right now, they would soon be dead, too. If they made it out, he figured, a rescue crew could come in and get Billy and Tim’s bodies.

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Around 1:45 p.m., Riggs watched as DJ picked up a phone and called Tap Taylor, his friend and boss who was monitoring the mission from topside on Deer Island. “We’ve got two men down,” DJ said. “We need medical assistance on standby.”

“What happened?” Tap asked.

“I don’t know what happened,” DJ said, “but everything went to hell in a handbasket down here, and we’re trying to get out!”

Riggs was a veteran diver, a member of the brotherhood. It went against his every instinct to leave a brother behind. But his mind raced back to a month earlier, when the divers had been trained in mine rescue operations and been taught the protocol for handling a man down: Don’t try to resuscitate him, especially if he’s been down for a while. Focus on safely getting yourself out, or you’re likely to add to the body count. “We’ve got to leave them,” Riggs said.

Hoss was only 24 years old - Riggs was 38 - but he had a preternatural air of authority about him that matched his imposing 6-foot-5 frame. He had been foreman of their crew for that day’s mission. After quickly taking everything in, he let out his verdict. “We’re not leaving these guys.”

Hoss’s decision was so firm, so calm, so right that Riggs instantly felt good about it.

* * *

Hoss turned to Riggs. “Get those rebreathers ready.”

“I’m on it,” Riggs replied, hustling to the back of the Humvee.

The rebreathers consisted of face masks attached to bulky backpacks that looked like roller suitcases. Inside each rebreather was a small bottle of oxygen and a soda lime filter that absorbed the carbon dioxide from exhaled air, so it could be reused. Because the “scrubbed” air burned hot, each rebreather was supposed to have an ice pack installed in it. If everything went right, those units would give each of the guys four hours of air. But, of course, almost nothing had gone right on this mission, so they continued to brace for the worst.

Hoss could see Riggs struggling with the complicated rebreather assembly, mainly because he still needed to devote one hand to kinking his hose after each breath. Standing there, shoving the hose between his legs and trying to use his knees to do the kinking, Riggs began quietly saying the Lord’s Prayer. Unlike Riggs, Hoss wasn’t religious, but he called over to him. “Pray for us, Riggs.”

Before long, Riggs had managed to get one rebreather ready, though

he hadn’t yet had a chance to retrieve its ice pack from a cooler in the Humvee.

In the meantime, Hoss retrieved a different emergency breathing device, which sent a short supply of oxygen directly into the mouth while pinching off the nose. He gave one to DJ, put on one himself, and gave a third to DJ to give to Riggs. At last, Riggs could take off his mask and stop the madness of all that kinking. Hoss figured they could safely count on the devices to provide 30 minutes of air, so he hit his stopwatch.

To lighten their load, Hoss decided to unhitch the trailer from the Humvee. That meant cutting the hoses that tethered the liquid oxygen and nitrogen tanks on the trailer to the controls inside the Humvee. He called Riggs over, asking to borrow his knife, while DJ took over the task of assembling the other rebreathers, with ice packs.

As Hoss was about to cut the first hose, he looked down and was startled by what he saw. His hand was shaking uncontrollably. He turned to Riggs and asked him to do the cutting. The panic may have skipped Hoss’s mind, but it had found its way to his fingers.

Then DJ yelled over to them. “All stop on cutting the trailer loose!”

Hoss shot him a puzzled look.

“We’ve got to get these guys out of here, and we can’t load them into the Hummer,” DJ explained. On their drive in, they had taken two opposite-facing Humvees, but they would be leaving behind the one pointed toward the end of the tunnel. With all the equipment jammed inside, it would have been tight to try to fit all five guys into one Humvee. With three of them wearing the bulky rebreathers, it would be nearly impossible. “We can put them on the trailer,” DJ said.

Hoss agreed to leave the trailer attached.

By now, the rebreathers were ready. Hoss grabbed one and DJ helped him maneuver it onto his back and get him switched over, a complicated process. Then Hoss helped Riggs do the same. DJ put his backpack on himself, by laying it upside down on the tunnel floor, sticking his arms into it, and flipping it over his head, like a preschooler learning how to put on his jacket.

They moved Billy’s body first. DJ slipped several times trying to pull Billy out from under the Humvee, his own legs sliding under the vehicle next to Billy’s. He tried one last time to try to revive Billy by tipping his head back and blasting air into his mask. When nothing happened, he removed Billy’s mask. Looking at Billy’s motionless eyes above his trademark mustache, DJ said, “Tap would not want to see this.”

Hoss did what he sensed DJ could not bring himself to do, closing Billy’s eyes. With Billy on the trailer, they moved to the driver’s side to Tim, a big, bearded guy whose easygoing confidence Hoss had always admired. Once more, they tried to revive him. Once more, they were unsuccessful. When Tim was out of the driver’s seat, Hoss directed Riggs into it to get the Humvee started.

Hoss stood at the back of the vehicle and turned on the oxygen injector that the Humvee needed to run in the tunnel. Then he gave Riggs the sign to turn over the engine. Nothing. They tried it again. Nothing.

That’s when Hoss, whose poise and quick thinking had kept the three of them alive this far, found despair washing over him. He knew they had nowhere near the air they would need if they had to slog on foot more than 9 miles to the start of the tunnel. And he knew how long it had taken to get the Humvee going when they’d had trouble starting it during the previous two days of missions. He looked back at the trailer, fixing his eyes on Billy and Tim’s lifeless bodies. And he thought to himself, Is that our future?

* * *

DJ knew his carefree, party-boy reputation defined him, but the 29-year-old prided himself on being nothing but serious on the job, when it mattered most. His mother had always said there was nobody better in a crisis than DJ, and he had proved her right so far on this wrenching afternoon. Still, like Hoss, he felt panic set in when the Humvee wouldn’t start. How many more things can go wrong? Yet he was able to find comfort in an unexpected source: Riggs. The guy DJ thought had wanted to run was now sitting behind the wheel, projecting calm determination. Riggs was going to get this damn thing started.

Riggs seemed to have gleaned from the previous days’ engine troubles exactly what steps he needed to take to trick the oxygen injector into working, and how to do it without draining the battery, as had happened the day before. He coolly waited for the electronic sensors to reset, then, to override the injector, he flooded the intake with oxygen and ground the starter way longer than seemed wise. All of a sudden, in a thunderous groan, the engine turned over, belching a plume of diesel smoke out of the exhaust that filled the tight section of the tunnel as though it were a shotgun barrel.

“Keep it running!” Hoss yelled from the back. DJ jumped into the rear seat, Hoss in the passenger’s seat, and Riggs stepped on the gas.

As they drove off, a new worry surged into DJ’s head. Because they had kept the trailer attached, that meant they were still carrying the old breathing system’s three tanks of liquid nitrogen and one tank of liquid oxygen. If the Humvee took a hard turn in the unforgiving tunnel, which varied greatly in width and whose conditions went from simply damp to up to 3 feet of standing water, the trailer might jackknife. DJ knew a crash could turn those tanks into bombs.

“Riggs, stay on your toes,” DJ said.

The tunnel was measured in “rings” of roughly 5 feet. Every 1,000 rings or so, there was a marker. At some of those markers, there was a phone receiver hanging on the wall, providing a connection to topside. As they drove past those ring markers in descending order, Hoss didn’t want to stop for fear the Humvee might conk out. But then he realized that if he didn’t check in with Harald Grob, the engineer overseeing the operation from the surface, Harald might dispatch a backup crew on another Humvee. That would create a dangerous logjam. So at 2:40 p.m., as the Humvee approached ring 6,000 - with about 5 3/4 miles left between them and the shaft that led to the surface - Hoss got out and picked up the receiver.

“What’s going on?” Harald asked.

“Tim and Billy are gone,” Hoss said, curtly.

“How?”

DJ could tell Hoss had absolutely no interest in talking to Harald. After all, the divers had complained repeatedly to Harald in previous days about problems they were experiencing with the breathing system he had designed, but they were sent back into the tunnel on the same system.

“They’re dead and we’re at 6,000,” Hoss said, “and driving in with these two guys.” Then he hung up.

Back in the Humvee, Hoss started yelling that his lungs were burning up. The chemical reaction going on inside the rebreather made wearing one the equivalent of breathing out of a blow-dryer. That’s why it needed the ice pack to cool it down. But Hoss had grabbed the first rebreather, which had been set up without an ice pack. From the back seat, DJ reached into the rear of the vehicle to find the cooler and grabbed an ice pack. Then he pushed Hoss forward in his seat, pulled the back off his rebreather, and shoved the ice inside, to cool him down.

After DJ’s first call to topside, Tap had ridden down the shaft to wait for their return, so he’d never heard Hoss’s unvarnished report to Harald about Billy and Tim. Beginning around ring 5,000, the Humvee entered close enough range so DJ could reach Tap on a hand-held radio. He called in a couple more updates to Tap but could never muster the strength to tell him the news was much worse than Billy and Tim just being unconscious. DJ knew how close Tap and Billy were, how they’d even developed their own language when they were talking to each other on walkie-talkies, such as converting the standard “Roger” reply to “Rog-oh.” No, DJ didn’t want to deliver news this devastating over the radio.

Just shy of 2 miles from the shaft, DJ had his last communication with Tap.

“How’s Billy?” Tap asked.

“Well,” DJ stammered. “Billy’s gone.”

“What do you mean Billy’s gone?” Tap asked in an agitated voice. “Where did he go?”

DJ couldn’t continue with the dance. “Tap, there’s no lefts or rights down here,” he said. “He’s gone. He’s expired. He’s not here. Billy’s dead. And so is Timmy.” DJ asked him if he understood.

There was a pause, and then Tap answered softly. “Rog-oh.”

After they had traveled a bit farther, Hoss asked Riggs to stop the Humvee. He had once been part of a team of divers hired to retrieve the body of a worker killed in a hydroplant accident, and had to confront a scrum of media photographers waiting to capture the victim on film. Fearing there might be camera crews rushing to Deer Island, Hoss got out of the Humvee, determined to preserve Tim and Bill’s dignity. Standing beside the trailer, he noticed Tim’s foot and his heart sank. Somehow during the frenetic ride back, his leg must have gotten caught on something and been dragged, because his boot was worn off and so was part of his foot.

Hoss straightened Tim, closed Billy’s mouth, and then he and DJ unfolded a couple of blankets and carefully placed them over the two bodies. They then climbed onto the trailer and rode on it the rest of the way back. They weren’t going to let anything else happen to Tim and Billy.

At 3:36 p.m., Riggs navigated the vehicle up the ramp at the base of the shaft. A crew of paramedics swarmed the trailer to begin CPR on Tim and Billy. Seeing the blankets on the bodies, they complained to Hoss and DJ that they shouldn’t have taken Tim and Billy’s masks off and covered them with blankets, telling the divers they didn’t have the authority to pronounce people dead. Hoss was fuming. He looked down at his stopwatch, which he had started back when they’d put on their first emergency air devices - at least half an hour after Tim and Billy had been struck down. It read: 1 hour, 40 minutes. If those paramedics only knew the hell they’d just been through, the heroic lengths they had gone to in the hopes of trying to save their friends. After tossing out a few choice words, Hoss and DJ walked away, too drained to defend themselves.

DJ stepped into the basket with Riggs and Hoss, to be lifted up the shaft. But just before the gate shut, he remembered something and hopped out, bounding back toward the Humvee. It was his hard hat. Topside, when someone told him that he and Hoss and Riggs were lucky to have made it out, DJ turned over his hard hat and caressed his grandfather’s Virgin Mary medal that was hanging on a piece of twine inside. “This,” he said, “is what got us out.” Then he cut the twine, and put the medal in his pocket.

* * *

On July 20, 2009, a radiant Monday almost exactly 10 years after the accident, Olga Juse stood on the pedestrian walkway ringing Deer Island. She said a prayer, the same one she says every morning and every night, asking that Billy and Tim’s souls be at peace. Then she leaned over the railing and tossed a bouquet of gladiolas into the water resting atop the tunnel that had claimed her son’s life.

There was something remarkable about that cold coastal water. Its hues of blue and green were so clear that Olga and Billy’s sister, Jolene Juse-Paige, could actually see striped bass flitting around the granite rocks at the bottom of the shallow water. Not long ago, it would have been inconceivable to find rollerbladers and power walkers jockeying for space along the edge of this island dominated by a sprawling sewer plant, where sewage once expectorated without embarrassment right into the sea. Fighting back tears undiminished by the years, Olga said, “People here should never forget the lives that were sacrificed to give them a clean harbor.”

Every summer, Olga, who lives in Florida, and Jolene, who lives in California, travel to New Hampshire to attend a memorial Mass for Billy. His father, Bill, who lives in South Carolina and lost interest in his business and most other pursuits after the accident, visits on his own schedule. Olga deals with the loss by talking about Billy often - how he loved people so genuinely that he favored bearhugs to handshakes, how so many people loved him back that his funeral procession stretched for 4 miles.

Tim Nordeen’s widow, Judy Milner, and his parents came to Deer Island in 2002, when the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority unveiled a pair of benches and plaques in Billy and Tim’s honor. For them, the sting of Tim’s loss remains fresh. Judy first knew she wanted to spend the rest of her life with Tim when she watched the brawny guy lovingly carry a puppy to safety. As a psychiatrist in the Seattle area, she now recognizes how denial helped her look past the risks associated with his line of work so she could build a life with him.

In the end, who is to blame? Investigations by the State Police and US Navy and a subsequent wrongful-death and negligence lawsuit answered many questions, though perhaps not the biggest.

The surviving divers point first to Harald, the engineer who managed the project for Norwesco Marine. An analysis by the US Navy’s Experimental Diving Unit concluded that the breathing system he designed “was inadequate in its ability to support working divers. The lack of appropriate monitoring equipment contributed to the death of two individuals.” The report said that after Harald turned up the regulator inside the MAP Mix 9000 gas mixer, following advice he’d apparently been given by the machine’s local distributor, the regulator on the liquid oxygen tank simply could not keep up. That’s why it froze like a snow cone, turning the mixed gas being sent to the divers into a deadly supply of mostly nitrogen.

Why did Billy and Tim die while Hoss, Riggs, and DJ survived? To get to the three guys at the end of the tunnel, the bad air had to travel more than 1,000 feet, which made Hoss’s quick switch possible. But to get to Billy and Tim, it only had to go 10 feet. The Navy concluded that an in-line analyzer should have been installed - as Riggs had suggested - and that the MAP Mix 9000 should never have been used. That mixer was designed for industrial uses only, such as packaging food. It was not meant to blend air for human consumption.

Although it might be tempting to blame Harald and leave it at that, the plan wasn’t only his. He was working for Norwesco and had help from a Spokane company, A-L Compressed Gases, in designing the system. And, as Harald stressed in his comments to investigators, the MWRA, construction manager Kaiser Engineers, and tunnel contractor KAK all “went back and forth” in reviewing his proposed plan, so he felt comfortable with their buy-in. Local lawyers Robert Norton, John Prescott, and Nina Pelletier found plenty of blame to go around when they filed a wrongful-death lawsuit on behalf of the Juse and Nordeen families. The families settled in 2001 with the MWRA, Kaiser, KAK, Norwesco, A-L, and tunnel designer Parsons Brinckerhoff, agreeing as one of the conditions not to disclose amounts. Kaiser, KAK, and Norwesco also received fines from OSHA. Norwesco owner Roger Rouleau admits he should have supervised Harald more closely and taken Hoss’s concerns more seriously. But he argues that OSHA itself is not blame-free, since he showed OSHA officials the plan long before the divers went into the tunnel, and the officials raised no major concerns. Looking at it now, Roger says, “We should have never been in there.”

That gets to the larger, lingering question: How could this idea of sending divers to a place as remote as the moon, asking them to entrust their lives to an improvised breathing system, have made sense to sensible people?

The answer would appear to lie in the dangerous cocktail of time, money, stubbornness, and frustration near the end of the over-budget, long-delayed tunnel project. The major players desperately needed the project to surmount its last enormous hurdle. It’s almost as if, amid all the fatigue and expense and mutual distrust that had built up, they looked at Harald’s dazzling plan, then closed their eyes and hoped that it made sense. If they had kept them open, they might have had to confront the ways in which it didn’t.

They also might have hatched a better plan, like the one ultimately used to get the plugs out. In the summer of 2000, crews working off a barge in Massachusetts Bay dropped a 110-foot steel “straw” into the water, connecting it to diffuser riser No. 3, whose safety plug Riggs had already removed. Using jet fans and that giant straw, they sucked out the bad air from the tunnel and pulled in good air from the shaft end. That gave workers plenty of ambient oxygen to remove the remaining 52 plugs. Afterward, the tunnel was flooded, and treated sewer water began flowing way out into the bay, making possible the stunning transformation of Boston Harbor.

A sensible plan, but a far more expensive one. While the diver operation was expected to cost around $1 million, this final solution rang in around $15 million.

* * *

“Two colleagues died on the Deer Island Outfall project and it deeply affected all of us,” Harald Grob writes from his home in Canada, declining a request to be interviewed. “Over the years we have learned to live with this tragedy. For my part, I do not wish to start the healing process over again.”

Others at the center of this story continue the struggle to heal.

For two years, Donald Hosford stayed out of the water and barely left his house, battling painful memories and nightmares. Eventually, Hoss returned to the water, starting off slowly, following his counselor’s advice to put on his gear and sit at the bottom of a swimming pool for longer and longer spells. His marriage ended in divorce. These days, he’s once again working as a commercial diver. In fact, now he specializes in the most sophisticated, intense work in his field: saturation diving, where he stays underwater in a pressurized chamber for up to 30 days at a time. Hoss says his confidence these days comes from working for a company, Global Diving and Salvage in Seattle, that has built its business model around safety.

“Life,” says Dave Riggs, “has never been the same since the accident.” He struggled with marital strain and drank more than he should, but he’s happy to be in a more stable place these days. Now working as a certified welding inspector in California, he hasn’t been back in the water professionally since the accident. On weekends, he drives about nine hours round trip to spend time with his wife and two children, now 14 and 11.

Tap Taylor continues to run Black Dog Divers, although the 14-hour days are a distant memory. He says the accident made him finally understand the lesson Billy had been trying to teach him, that life is more important than work. Because the anniversary of the accident falls on his birthday, Tap always finds it difficult to celebrate.

Roger Rouleau closed down Norwesco and, with a colleague, formed a new business in 2002, doing the same kind of diving work, under the name Associated Underwater Services. At a job in Washington state in the summer of 2007, a piling detached from a vibrating hammer and killed a Massachusetts native working for his company. OSHA levied two safety-violation fines against Associated Underwater and several more against the general contractor. Roger says the incident dredged up bad memories from Deer Island and contributed to his decision to leave the business. In June, his partner bought him out.

DJ Gillis has had the rockiest post-accident path. Like Hoss and Riggs, DJ found that the traumatic memories of Deer Island made him reluctant to return to diving. Also like Hoss and Riggs, DJ received money from a legal settlement that made a return to work less pressing. He resumed his hard-partying ways, but unlike the past, he didn’t have his diving job to rein him in. He was haunted by survivor’s guilt, especially when it came to Billy, with whom he had switched positions at the last minute. He had a recurring nightmare where he’d find himself in the tunnel and didn’t know which way the exit was. He’d wake up breathing heavily, sweating profusely, crying. “So I didn’t like to go to sleep,” he says. “Instead, I would stay up all night, in loud bars, until I passed out.” He eventually got hooked on OxyContin and other opiates, and then heroin. He returned to diving briefly, heading to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina hit, only to lose another friend on the job.

That was the buildup to May 10, 2008, when DJ, desperate for cash to get a heroin fix, sat behind the wheel of a black Honda Accord while a longtime friend and now fellow heroin addict walked into Village Bank in Newton and handed the teller a note demanding “big bills.” And that was the backdrop to June 3, 2009, when DJ stood in Courtroom 10 before US District Court Chief Judge Mark Wolf and was sentenced to 18 months in jail for his involvement in the robbery. Wolf allowed that his sentence was lighter than federal guidelines would suggest, but he said the departure was justified. The case, the judge said, was about drugs more than theft. After reading about DJ’s role in the Deer Island accident, he told him, “It doesn’t exclude your involvement in a bank robbery, but it helps explain it.” The accident, he was suggesting, must still loom large over DJ’s life.

There was evidence to support his hunch beneath DJ’s off-white long-sleeve shirt. There, on his upper right arm, is the tattoo DJ sees every morning when he looks in the mirror. It’s a drawing of a diving mask. Billy and Tim’s names sit below it. Above it are the words:

Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at swidey@globe.com.
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