On July 21, 1999, a team of five divers entered the Deer Island sewage-treatment outfall tunnel, a key portion of a multibillion-dollar project, considered a feat of modern engineering, aimed at cleaning up polluted Boston Harbor. The tunnel was virtually completed, save for the removal of plugs that had been inserted to prevent flooding and ensure the tunnel-builders’s safety.
Unfortunately two of the divers would die that day and three others would barely escape the tunnel’s pitch-black, airless atmosphere. That fatal disaster marks the starting point of Neil Swidey’s “Trapped Under the Sea,’’ a dramatic examination of the world of commercial diving and the risks and dangers that accompany it.
Swidey, a reporter with The Boston Globe, uses his considerable storytelling skills as he weaves the histories of the divers with explanations of the engineering complexities of the project, and the roles of construction companies, governmental agencies, and others in the tragedy.
By the 1980s Boston had been dumping barely-treated and raw sewage into Boston Harbor for so long that the city had earned the unwanted honor of having the nation’s filthiest harbor, cruelly but not undeservedly described “as a giant stinking cesspool.” In the 1990s, Massachusetts constructed a state- of-the-art sewage treatment plant at Deer Island that officials hoped would become a glowing example of how a state could turn an environmental disaster into an environmental triumph.
An integral part of the project involved the construction of the nearly 10-mile-long Deer Island tunnel, hundreds of feet below the harbor, which would allow treated waste to flow far out to sea from the onshore treatment facility. The final step that needed to be taken was the sending of five divers to travel the full length of the world’s longest deadend tunnel, near the end of which would extend a series of vertical pipes that would allow the effluent to be released into the water.
Once at the tunnel’s end, which narrowed to a diameter of just 5 feet, the men were to crawl up all 55 of the 30-inch-wide pipes to remove 65-pound safety plugs in each one. Of necessity, all lighting and ventilation had been removed from the tunnel, and each of the divers would be required to carry his own air and lighting supplies. It was a dangerous task and one that none of the main players had experience with.
Beginning with his prologue, Swidey demonstrates his ability to both draw the reader immediately into the story and to identify with his characters. We meet the men who were being asked to travel through the tunnel in two customized Humvees until it became too narrow and they had to haul their equipment on foot while breathing through an improvised air delivery system that a state police investigator would later describe as “an eighth-grade science fair project gone horribly wrong.”
Swidey’s description of the men who “were used to danger . . . Navy SEAL-type guys who ran toward it when everybody else was running away” is obviously based on intense research and interviews. One of the book’s most intriguing aspects is the manner in which he provides the back stories, not only of the divers but of almost all involved — vivid, personal stories about wives, mothers, girlfriends, project planners, lawyers, and investigators.
Typical is the way Swidey, throughout the book, chronicles the relationship between diver D.J. Gillis and his mother, Lorraine, a tactic that allows us to learn much about the strengths, weaknesses, and motivations of one of the most important characters in the book.
Perhaps Swidey’s greatest accomplishment is how through it all — the bravery, the bungling, and the loss — he manages to attain a level of suspense akin to that accomplished by Sebastian Junger in “The Perfect Storm.”
We worry with the divers and those close to them as they embark on their mission knowing the challenges they are apt to face, particularly apprehensive about their safety, especially after learning that the Boston Fire Department had made it clear that if they ran into trouble miles into an unventilated tunnel, firefighter crews would not be sent in to rescue them.
However not all readers will embrace this book. Swidey keeps the action moving and the tension mounting, but those looking for a quick story with a tidy resolution might be put off by the amount and level of detail he provides.
Yet in many ways, it is these details that gives the book its true importance. For there are many lessons to be learned from this masterfully crafted saga of how the ways we evaluate risk can lead to disaster.
In the end, it also reminds us that ours is a society in which “blue collar workers are the ones expected to transform the dazzling dreams of engineers and the promises of politicians into concrete reality,’’ sometimes at great personal risk and with no reward beyond a regular paycheck.
Martin W. Sandler is the author of more than 80 books. He was nominated twice for a Pulitzer Prize and has received seven Emmy Awards.