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Diver in Braintree died in the presence of his teen son

Tactical crews at the scene in Braintree.
Tactical crews at the scene in Braintree.(Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff)

BRAINTREE — A diver hired to inspect the inside of a massive, multistory water tank died Thursday in the frigid waters, as his adolescent son was on the ground below and another man plunged into the tank to try to save him.

An intense rescue effort ensued after the victim, who was not identified, reported a problem with his air supply around 10 a.m. He then lost communication with a spotter atop the million-gallon Lincoln Heights tank, one of five in the town, according to Braintree Fire Chief James O’Brien.

The spotter jumped in to help, but instead found himself also trapped in the dangerously cold water, officials said. The crew called for help, summoning rescuers from around the region to brave high winds, dangerous cold, and icy conditions atop the water tower.

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Two firefighters lifted the spotter out of the tank, he said, a job that was made more difficult by the cold weather, which led to the rapid freezing of overflowing water from the tank. O’Brien said the spotter was “completely soaked,” numb, and cold with “no body strength at all.”

Emergency workers were unable to reach the diver. Town officials were lowering the water level Thursday evening with the intention to remove his body in a “dignified and respectful” manner, Mayor Joseph Sullivan said.

The recovery process was expected to continue into the early morning hours, he said.

“It’s a tragic day. It’s a difficult day for us,” the mayor said at the scene. “That individual was providing valuable service to our community. We also saw the best of our fire department and others who stepped up and took the time to save a life.”

The diver and spotter were working with another person on the ground, along with a representative from the local public works department and the 14-year-old son of the man who died, officials said.

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Sullivan said the town had not confirmed whether there were other familial links between the workers.

The town said each of its water tanks has to be inspected once every five years.

Braintree retained a Kentucky-based company, Pittsburg Tank & Tower Co., for the work, and the firm, in turn, hired a subcontractor, T.K. Potable Diving of Texas.

Ben Johnston, president of Pittsburg Tank & Tower, said in a brief phone interview, “It’s a bad day and we’re just trying to get our arms around everything.”

“Certainly, [we offer] prayers for the family of the deceased, and we’ll continue the investigation to understand what happened,” he said.

T.K Potable Diving officials did not immediately respond to telephone and e-mail inquiries seeking comment.

From left to right: Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan, Fire Chief James O’Brien, and Louis Dutton, water works superintendent.
From left to right: Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan, Fire Chief James O’Brien, and Louis Dutton, water works superintendent.(Barry Chin/Globe Staff)

On its website, the company states that it “strives to provide superior quality potable diving, tank cleaning, and inspections for a variety of industrial, commercial, and retail applications in all 50 states.”

Early indications show no sign of foul play in the man’s death, according to the office of Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey. Investigators from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration were at the site.

Sullivan repeatedly commended the bravery of emergency personnel in the face of challenging conditions.

Shortly after the man became trapped in the tank, the National Weather Service issued an advisory for Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, warning of wind gusts between 50 and 60 miles per hour, as well as “extreme cold.”

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“It’s a terrible situation, in terms of a tragedy of a lost life,” Sullivan said in a later phone interview. “There were incredibly difficult weather conditions. You’re talking about a 150-foot tower. You’re talking about incredibly cold weather, with wind that was just gusting. Our firefighters responded in a very committed and heroic way.”

Officials said there was no threat to the municipal water supply as a result of the tragedy.

The tank was being drained Thursday through a hydrant located in a wooded area away from any residential neighborhood, Sullivan said.

He also highlighted the dangers inherent in performing the water tower inspections.

“None of this activity should be considered routine,” he said. “And obviously today we found out the difficulty of this work.”

Firefighters worked to rescue two workers who became trapped inside a large water tank Thursday morning.
Firefighters worked to rescue two workers who became trapped inside a large water tank Thursday morning.(WBZ)

Globe correspondent Olivia Quintana contributed to this report. Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.