Metro

Group effort pulling cars from watery grave in Merrimack River

Diver Mike Nalen watched a 1988 Mercury Topaz emerge from the Merrimack; the car later was marked No. 53.

Mark Lorenz for The Boston Globe

Diver Mike Nalen watched a car emerge from the Merrimack.

ANDOVER — Well, you can say this about the Merrimack River: It has been, historically, a practically perfect place to dump a car.

Water the color of black coffee. Dozens of secluded access points, especially along a wooded trail that runs beside the banks from Lowell to Lawrence.

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In this state, with its grand tradition of boosting cars and committing insurance fraud, you’d be hard pressed to find a better spot to vanish a ride. So far, crews have found nearly 80 on the river bottom, cars that long ago passed from transportation to evidence. Even as car theft rates have fallen, you can find in the mud of the Merrimack a calcified reminder of the state’s mid-70s run as the Car Theft Capital of America.

And so it was that on Tuesday, a group of guys stood on the muddy banks of the Merrimack in Andover, watching excitedly as a tow truck hauled the latest catch ashore.

“There’s nothing like car fishing!” Chris McNulty exclaimed as the winch pulled the car — which was essentially an aquarium at this point — ashore on its hood and flipped it over onto its wheels. Or at least what you imagine were its wheels. It looked more like a car made out of mud by a 3-year-old.

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Rocky Morrison approached triumphantly and wrote the number 53 on its door.

In the seven years that the Clean River Project has been pulling cars from the Merrimack River, Tuesday was a big day. They passed the 50-car milestone, and they were coming close to finishing. Or at least finishing the ones they can actually get out of the river.

There are about 20 other cars called “crispies” in there, cars so rusted you can put your finger right through the metal. When they try to pull them out, the cable usually rips the car in half, so the crews take the engines and maybe the axles and leave the rest behind as hibernation spots for fish.

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The Clean River Project has an official name now, but it started in the most offhand of ways. About 13 years ago, Morrison, who grew up near the banks across the water in Methuen, organized a scavenger hunt to pick up trash. Very informal. Just a couple of guys, a couple of boats, a couple of beers, and points for everything they picked up. Tires were the key to winning.

But as that scavenger hunt became an annual event, the scope of the pollution became impossible to ignore, so Morrison formalized a non-profit about 10 years ago, organized cleanups along the banks — toys, washing machines, 1,700 tires in Haverhill alone — until one day the water level was lowered to repair a dam.

That’s when they saw them. Cars. Everywhere.

“Every 15 feet, you would see a bright object on the bottom,” Morrison said, and so they began going after them, for two reasons. The first is simply to get them out, because the Merrimack, which provides water to about 400,000 people, is the only major river in New England that serves as a direct source of drinking water.

The second is for public relations. “When people see big objects, they can relate,” Morrison said. “It’s really an eye-opener to the pollution and (the)problem that’s been going on for years.”

Getting decades-old cars out of a pitch-black river is no easy feat. First, crews have to find them, which they do by feel, with the help of divers.

“Basically, I swim until I bang my head into them,” said Michael Nalen, a commercial diver who has been working with the project. “It’s black water. Zero visibility. You can’t see them until you hit them.”

After the cars have been found, crews tie a buoy to them, then go back and spend hours and hours under water blasting them with water jets to free them from the mucky bottom. Airbags are then inflated to float the cars up off the bottom, then they are moved to a spot where a tow truck can get access and yank them ashore.

Some of the cars are in seemingly impossible spots, far from shore, because if the windows were up when they were first dumped, the cars would float a bit. Others were probably driven out to the middle on ice.

Once the hulking chunks have been towed to land, Keith Gagnon, the “fisherman,” goes about removing the headlights, digging around in the engine, pulling off the interior panels, all to find the small fish that burrow into the mud. He’ll find dozens of bluegill and hornpout and smallmouth bass and toss them back into the river in a cascade of confused, flapping fish.

They hose the car out some more with a water jet because even the tow truck can’t lift it with all those tons of muck. A cleaner car also means that the State Police trooper who is watching can confirm that there are no dead bodies inside.

Then they clean the VIN number off with ether spray — at this point, if they rubbed the metal plate, the numbers would often just disappear — and the trooper runs it through the system.

Number 53 is a 1988 Mercury Topaz, reported stolen in 1989.

There is a well-earned sense of accomplishment with each car. Considering where the Clean River Project started, as a couple of boys with toys looking for trash, it has grown to a fleet of five boats custom-built by Morrison, corporate partnerships with 3M, Siemens, Keurig, and Stanley Tools — many of whom send employees out to get filthy in the muck — and a grant from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust to pay for the divers. (The car insurance companies foot the tab for the towing and disposal.)

Their next task is to put boulders near the river access points, and work with cities and towns to install gates, so that no future cars can go swimming.

As the sun gets low in the sky, the crew pulls its eighth car of the day, No. 54 in total — a 1991 Dodge reported stolen in Salem, N.H., in 1997 — and start packing it in for the year.

It’s approaching fish hibernation season, and the little guys will burrow inside, out of the current for the winter. So if there are any more dead cars down there, they’ll spend this winter just as they have in years past -- sleeping with the fishes.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.
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