Trapped In a Sewer Tunnel under Boston Harbour
The plan was ambitious but simple: Build a 9.5-mile sewer tunnel hundreds of feet below the ocean floor to help clean up Boston Harbour. Five divers went deep, deep into the project for one final step – with deadly results.
This is their harrowing story…
Just over a quarter-century ago, Boston Harbour was infamous for being “the dirtiest harbour in America,” an open sewer that became a major issue in the presidential campaign of 1988. Today, Boston can boast of having the nation’s cleanest urban harbour. The key to that undisputed environmental triumph is a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant sitting on tiny Deer Island north of Boston, and an engineering marvel of an outfall tunnel.
Every day, that nearly 10-mile-long Deer Island Tunnel, built hundreds of feet below the ocean floor, carries up to 1 billion gallons of wastewater from the plant out into the deep Atlantic waters of Massachusetts Bay. And gravity, rather pumps or machines, is the force powering that flow.
The tunnel was billed as the longest single-entrance (or dead-end) tunnel in the world, and it is the largely unknown workhorse behind the multi-billion dollar court-ordered cleanup of the harbour that has transformed Boston. But at the end of a decade of construction, handled by some of the country’s top designers and contractors, the massive tunnel would not work until someone figured out how to tackle one final and extremely hazardous task.
The divers packed themselves into the basket and prepared to be lowered by a crane down the 400-foot shaft. But they couldn’t move until DJ Gillis got into the basket with them, and he wasn’t about to be hurried.
“C’mon, DJ,” one of the guys yelled. “Let’s go!”
Tap Taylor, who was DJ’s boss, started yelling, too. “Let’s go!” It was a radiant summer morning, and they were standing on Deer Island, a peninsula that hangs down like a comma from Winthrop into Boston Harbour, curling in front of Logan Airport. It also happened to be Tap’s 36th birthday, and he didn’t want to waste it waiting for DJ to move his tail.
The two of them had a close if combustible relationship. Tap was a hard-charging guy who logged one 14-hour day after another with the singular focus of building his small New Hampshire commercial diving business into something bigger. Still, he had a soft spot for DJ, treating the 29-year-old more like a kid brother than an employee. A 6-foot-2, solidly built charmer, DJ had developed a reputation as a talented diver who worked hard and partied harder. He’d show up late to job sites many mornings, often dropped off by some blonde or brunette. As DJ would be hurriedly changing out of his dress shoes and pants from the night before, Tap would start cursing, threatening to kick him off the job. But those outbursts usually ended the same way. Before long, Tap would calm down, laugh, and begin pumping DJ for details from his latest adventure hopping bars and beds.
“C’mon!” Tap shouted again.
“If you’re in that much of a hurry,” DJ barked back, “then go without me!”
It was the morning of July 21, 1999, a Wednesday, and the tension was thick, mainly because so many problems had surfaced on the project that Monday and Tuesday. Getting down the shaft would be the easy part. The challenge would come when the divers had to make their way to the end of a dank, dark sewer tunnel that began at the base of the shaft and kept going and going, for nearly 10 miles. Tap, who would be monitoring their progress from topside, was in no mood for DJ’s same old antics.
In reality, neither was DJ. The only woman he had on his mind now was the Virgin Mary. He had been searching the construction trailer for a piece of twine. He needed it to tie a small oval religious medal to the underside of his hard hat. The medal had once belonged to his grandfather, a carpenter who helped construct the Prudential Building that defined Boston’s skyline.
DJ had asked his mother for it the night before, remembering the story of how his grandfather had kept the Miraculous Medal in his pocket the whole time he worked on the Pru, taking comfort in the Blessed Virgin’s protection. Seeking comfort himself, DJ had gingerly asked his mom, “Is that still around?”
“Yes,” she said. “Why?”
“I’m a little concerned about the job.”
As much as he downplayed his growing uneasiness, he hadn’t been surprised to see fear flash over his mother’s face. He had broken one of the cardinal rules he’d learned early on in his career as a commercial diver, when he’d seen oil rigs capsize and cranes collapse: Never tell your family the truth about how dangerous the job was. It wasn’t fair to dump that kind of worry on them.
Still, this wasn’t like any job DJ had worked on before. In fact, it wasn’t like any job anyone had worked on before. That challenge to make history in his field, to do the seemingly undoable, was what had sold him on this Deer Island assignment in the first place, what made him leave a steadier gig doing more conventional work as a pile driver. Yet with everything that had gone down in the last few days, he was having buyer’s remorse.
Finally, he found the twine, fastened the Virgin Mary, and put on his hard hat as he strode over to the basket. Tap was still heated. “What the hell were you doing? We’ve got a job to do here!”
DJ took off his hat and turned it over, so the guys could see the medal dangling from it. “I’m taking care of myself,” he said.
Tap’s steam instantly lifted. “It’s getting that bad, huh?”
Imagine entering a tunnel that’s been bored into the earth hundreds of feet below Massachusetts Bay and continues straight out, for 9 1/2 miles. There is no light, besides what the bulb on your helmet can give off. There is no sound, besides the water dripping overhead or sloshing around your boots. There is no air, besides what you brought in with you, a lifeline pumping through a hose and into your face mask. At the end of the tunnel, there isn’t even enough room to stand up straight, since it chokes down to just 5 feet in diameter before ending abruptly. It’s the world’s longest one-way tunnel, so there’s no way out other than turning around and making the hazardous trek back to where you started.
This is where DJ and four other commercial divers were headed on that Wednesday morning 10 summers ago. They’d been dispatched on a high-risk mission to fix a problem that had confounded some of the world’s top engineering and construction companies for a decade. If they were able to solve the problem, the empty tunnel could be flooded, allowing up to 1.3 billion gallons of treated sewer water to flow out to sea on a heavy day. Left unsolved, the problem threatened to turn the new tunnel into a $300 million white elephant, if not render the entire court-ordered cleanup of Boston Harbor a $4 billion waste of money.
This is the untold story of how a vast engineering marvel of a public works project ended with a handful of divers being given an improvised, untested plan and then sent into the darkness. And how their mission turned into a harrowing race to get out alive.
Boston Harbour was once a national embarrassment, a waterway indivisible from the nation’s history but blackened by the smothering amounts of sewage and sludge dumped into it every day. Musicians mined its sorry state for song, comedians for laughs, and George H.W. Bush for political advantage, hopping aboard a ferry during his 1988 presidential race against then governor Michael Dukakis and leading camera crews around “the dirtiest harbor in America.” It is now considered one of the country’s cleaner harbours, an unambiguous environmental success story.
The state-of-the-art treatment plant built during the 1990s by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority on Deer Island was the centerpiece of the harbour cleanup. On the same spot from which Eastern Massachusetts’s barely treated sewage once flowed directly into the cold coastal waters, the plant now puts the sewage through a sophisticated two-stage treatment process. The sludge is removed and converted into fertilizer pellets, while the treated water travels through the tunnel. In its final mile, the horizontal tunnel connects with 55 vertical “diffuser risers,” pipes that climb up to the ocean floor and are each topped with a domed cap the shape of a mini Apollo 11 command module. The treated water flows through the tunnel, up the risers, and then out into the sea through sprinkler heads in those diffuser caps. It’s an intricate process designed to slow down and spread out the flow of the treated water, limiting its impact on marine life and water quality.
While the tunnel was being built, there were covers fitted to each sprinkler head, to prevent sea water from getting in. But the tunnel’s designers worried that they wouldn’t offer enough protection. What if a ship anchor dragging along the ocean floor accidentally ripped off one of those space-module diffuser caps, opening up the tunnel to a raging tidal wave? As a secondary measure, they insisted that fiberglass safety plugs be installed near the base of each diffuser riser, to protect the hundreds of subterranean construction workers – known as “sandhogs” – from the ocean above.
Yet after the sandhogs left, those 55 safety plugs still had to be unplugged. While the sprinkler covers could be yanked out by divers swimming down to the seafloor, it would be much harder to pry out the internal safety plugs. And neither the MWRA nor its big-name design firms of Parsons Brinckerhoff and Metcalf & Eddy spelled out how it could be safely done. Instead, they left the responsibility for figuring that out to the construction company that won the contract in 1990 to build the tunnel, a joint venture called Kiewit-Atkinson-Kenny, or KAK.
It should have been clear early on how perilous a task it would be to remove those 65-pound plugs, which resembled industrial-kitchen salad bowls and were nestled deep inside 30-inch-wide pipes way at the end of the tunnel. That’s because the MWRA’s team did make one important stipulation: The plugs could be removed only after the tunnel was done and the sandhogs had cleared out, taking their lighting, transportation, and ventilation systems with them.
Yet if KAK managers were worried, they didn’t let on for years. They had their hands full building the tunnel. So, as with the Big Dig and other mega construction projects, in the end a massive, breathtakingly complicated puzzle would nearly be undone by a relatively small piece.
By 1997, with KAK way behind schedule and late fees piling up, it began a battle over the safety (or “offtake”) plugs with Kaiser Engineers, the company managing the tunnel project for the MWRA. KAK wanted permission to yank the plugs while it still had the main ventilation and lighting systems in the tunnel. Kaiser said no, insisting that “all work in the tunnel be complete before the offtake plugs are removed.” Each side claimed worker safety was its paramount concern. Kaiser said it would be unwise to endanger the lives of hundreds of sandhogs by leaving the tunnel exposed to a possible flood for the months it would take to remove the utilities. KAK countered that the diffuser caps had been undisturbed for their six years on the ocean floor and it would be insanity to put a small number of workers at extreme risk by sending them into the tunnel with no air or light, all in the name of protecting a larger group of workers from an exceedingly small risk. By waiting until the end to pull the plugs, KAK said, “the risk of catastrophe would be exponentially higher.”
After a year of sharply, sometimes theatrically worded memos, Kaiser suggested in 1998 that KAK install a new, smaller ventilation line, which could be taken down quickly after the plugs had been pulled. KAK said that would cost millions and asked the MWRA to pay for it. Kaiser said no, it will be on your dime. Not long after that, KAK did an about-face and called in the dive team.
DJ and his fellow divers were used to danger; they were Navy SEAL sort of guys who run toward it when everybody else is running away. They had been hired not because they would be submerged in water – at the time, there was no more than a few feet of standing water in the tunnel – but because they knew how to do construction work in dicey settings where they had to supply their own breathing air. As it turned out, they would be asked to do something so experimental, requiring them to be so utterly cut off from civilization, that they might as well have been working on the surface of the moon.
Two weeks before that radiant Wednesday morning, as the divers were converging in Tap Taylor’s backyard in southern New Hampshire to begin mobilizing, Tap pulled DJ aside. “I know you’re not going to like this guy Harald,” he told DJ. “But I need you to do me a favor. Keep your opinions to yourself.”
Although they were using Tap’s yard as their staging area, Tap was not in charge. Harald Grob was.
When KAK managers had been casting about for a bold team to solve their safety-plug dilemma, Tap had eagerly stepped forward. He presented a plan that would supply divers with compressed air from tubes stacked on a tractor-trailer and sent as far into the tunnel as possible. But his company, Black Dog Divers, was too small to get the bonding insurance that KAK managers demanded. So they awarded the roughly $800,000 contract to Norwesco Marine of Spokane, Washington. Still, Tap’s company stood to earn more than $100,000 for its junior role providing some of the divers, logistical support, and good relations with the Boston unions.
Norwesco’s man in charge was Harald, a bright engineer from British Columbia who had just turned 40. Tap was used to dealing with engineers who always believed they were the smartest guys in the room. But Harald, whose CV distended over seven pages, including attachments, struck Tap as someone who took this self-assuredness to a new level.
That’s not to say Tap wasn’t dazzled like everyone else by the adventurous, military-ops feel to Harald’s plan. Divers would use souped-up Humvees to travel in the tunnel and get their air from a mixture of liquid nitrogen and liquid oxygen. The liquid gases would be combined right there in the tunnel, and just a few tanks could go a long way. This would make his breathing system easier to transport into the tunnel than Tap’s and allow the divers to work for longer shifts.
In addition to DJ, Tap would be bringing to the project his close friend and former business partner Billy Juse, a friendly MacGyver type whose dark mustache had edges as squared off as tape cut with scissors. A year earlier, Billy had asked Tap to buy out his share of Black Dog. He had been frustrated that he was in his mid-30s, but his 100-hour workweeks were keeping him from building a life with his longtime girlfriend, Michelle. Still, he remained committed to the company’s success and was looking forward to the Deer Island job and working with DJ again.
Standing in Tap’s backyard, DJ had complete trust in Billy. But the handful of divers from the West Coast were a blank slate for him. At first, both camps eyed each other like rival rappers from opposite coasts.
Yet the more they got to know each other that week, doing run-throughs with a sample plug and pipe, the more comfortable the divers became with one another. DJ had originally assumed the West Coast divers were all an extension of Harald. But when the equipment was not coming together the way he had planned, the divers started to bond over their shared frustration with how Harald seemed to be drawing more inward rather than turning to them for input. They also wondered aloud why the centerpiece of his plan, a gas mixer called a MAP Mix 9000, was not on-site for testing. For reasons they could not understand, it was being shipped from Europe, and its arrival had been delayed.
Despite DJ’s growing confidence in the other divers, he regretted that one of his mentors wouldn’t be among them. A few weeks earlier, Ron Kozlowski had pulled DJ aside and told him he was backing out of the job. He suggested DJ do the same. DJ put a lot of stock in what Ron had to say. After all, he had served combat tours in Vietnam, allowing him to see how human nature takes over in life-or-death situations. He told DJ that the way he saw it, the divers were being asked to remove the safety plugs that had protected the sandhogs from a tidal wave tearing through the tunnel. Just what would be there to protect the divers?
“The only way I’d go in is with a boogie board and a .45,” he told DJ. “The boogie board to ride the wave out, and the .45 to keep you guys off my boogie board.”
Donald Hosford, one of the West Coast divers, hoped that when the guys finally began working in the tunnel, the tensions would ease. Instead, they only continued to build. It was clear to him and the other divers that the tunnel project had been going on for a long time and a lot of important players wanted it to be wrapped up yesterday. Hoss – hardly anyone used his real first name, not even him – had a ropy 6-foot-5 build, spiky sandy hair, and the rugged looks of someone who might appear in a magazine ad for the Copenhagen chew he always kept wadded under his lip. He was just 24 years old, but he was already a rising star for Norwesco.
On Monday, July 19, Hoss was one of the five divers who went into the tunnel for the first time using the mixed-liquid gas system, while several other divers stayed back, preparing equipment for the next day’s mission. Just three days earlier, the MAP Mix 9000 had finally arrived at Deer Island. By this time, all ventilation and lighting, except at the start of the tunnel, was gone.
They rode into the tunnel on a Humvee, its engine fortified to handle the oxygen-deficient air. Because there would be no room to turn the vehicle around when it came time to leave, they towed a second Humvee facing the opposite direction. At the base of the shaft, the tunnel was about 24 feet wide, but toward the end it got progressively narrower. After the 9-mile mark, the Humvee could go no farther. Two of the divers stayed on the Humvee, monitoring the main breathing system. The other three left on foot, slogging to the very end of the tunnel, where they would start removing the first of the safety plugs, eventually working their way back.
Hoss was part of the three-man expedition team. They dragged a flat-bottomed metal boat carrying a manifold – a rack with multiple inputs that connected them, through a 1,200-foot hose, to the main breathing system on the Humvee. The hose was called an umbilical because the divers could not survive without it any longer than a baby in the womb could survive without his. In addition, the three divers each had his own umbilical that allowed him to move up to 300 feet away from the boat. As a backup, if their main mixed-gas breathing system failed, there were four canisters of high-pressure, or HP, air strapped to the roof of one of the Humvees, as well as a small supply in the boat.
It didn’t take long for the divers to realize the system was not producing enough air for them. Hoss felt his mask getting sucked into his face, so much so that he’d have to pull it away to take a breath, briefly inhaling the bad tunnel air. The Humvee crew called Harald, who was in his trailer topside. He told them to switch to the backup air, which could be sent through the same umbilicals to Hoss and the other divers who were on foot. Not much later, with the HP air dwindling, they aborted the mission for the day.
Because of the low air quality, the Humvees needed their own air supply and oxygen injection system to work. But when they went to start the Humvee to leave, it wouldn’t work. They ended up having to monkey with the O2 injector for some time until it started.
On Monday night, Harald called the local representative of Topac, a distributor of the MAP Mix 9000, and asked him about the problem of low air production. Harald told the divers the next morning that, at the advice of the rep, he had turned up the regulator inside the mixer.
Around the same time, Hoss called Roger Rouleau, Norwesco’s owner in Spokane, and told him the breathing system was flawed. In his five years with the company, Hoss had grown to view Roger as a businessman focused on dollars and cents, but Hoss hoped that, as a former diver, Roger would take Hoss’s concerns seriously. Roger had stayed back in Washington, but the unusual nature of the Deer Island job had drawn him attention from Spokane’s Journal of Business a few days earlier. “We’ve done a lot of wacky stuff,” he told the journal. “That’s what makes this business fun. The weirder and wackier it is, the better it is for us.” After getting off the phone with Hoss, Roger dialed Harald. Even though Roger was the boss, he had always felt a bit intimidated intellectually by Harald. So when Harald assured him he had worked out the kinks and “this is going to work well,” that was enough for Roger.
In fact, Tuesday didn’t go much better. Among the divers on plug-pulling duty that day was Norwesco’s Dave Riggs, a 38-year-old who had two young children back in Nevada and a touch of his native Texas in his accent. He had one of those last names that sounded like a nickname, so that’s what everyone called him.
Again, the divers complained of not getting enough air from the mixer. And, again, they had trouble starting the Humvee. This time, its battery died, so they spent more than an hour removing the battery from the Humvee they had driven out in and which was now loaded onto the trailer, and installing that battery in the Humvee that they would be driving back to the shaft.
With all the air problems, not to mention the absurd difficulty of crawling around a slippery 5-foot-wide tunnel and through 30-inch-wide pipes, all while wearing breathing equipment; the divers in two days had managed to pull the plugs from only diffuser No. 1 and No. 2. They still had 53 to go.
Out of the tunnel, several guys complained that the system had them worried for their safety. Riggs tried striking a helpful tone, asking Harald if the Norwesco shop back in Washington had an in-line analyzer. The relatively inexpensive gauge, which could be plumbed into the system, would tell the divers precisely what the oxygen level was in the breathing air after it had gone through the mixer but before it made it into the divers’ umbilicals. The in-line analyzer would be far more reliable than the attached air sampler and hand-held monitor they’d been given. “Can we get one of those hotshotted out here?” Riggs asked.
Although he never really answered Riggs’s question, Harald assured the divers that he had made the necessary adjustments. Nonetheless, the complaints intensified out of his earshot, as the drivers rode back to the Howard Johnson’s in Revere. From his motel room, Hoss talked to both his wife and his parents. Uncharacteristically, he opened up about the pit growing in his stomach. They implored him to leave the job, but he said he couldn’t abandon the other guys.
The other divers were feeling similar pangs of worry. That same night, DJ was having his uncomfortable conversation with his mother at their home in Waltham, asking for his grandfather’s Virgin Mary medal. And at five minutes to 6 the next morning, Billy called his mother, Olga, in Florida, to ask a last-minute question about homeowner’s insurance for the New Hampshire house he and Michelle were preparing to close on. He knew his mom, who worked in a law office, would have the answer. But Olga sensed an unusual heaviness in his voice. So she asked him how the job was going, expecting he would perk up and deliver one of his standard upbeat responses. He didn’t, telling her, “I’m working in this godawful hole.”
For all the drama leading up to Wednesday, there was a certain calm to the morning once the guys got into the tunnel. Hoss rode 400 feet down the shaft, sharing the basket with Riggs and DJ and his Virgin Mary-adorned hard hat. At the base, they found Billy going over pre-mission checklists with Tim Nordeen of Norwesco. Hoss always liked working with Tim, a 39-year-old Texas native with an easygoing gentleness to him behind his husky, bearded exterior.
Just after 8 a.m., Hoss hopped into the passenger’s seat of the forward-facing Humvee, which Billy was driving. Tim sat in the driver’s seat of the Humvee being towed, with Riggs riding shotgun and DJ in the back. Then they began the roughly two-hour drive through standing water out toward the end of the tunnel.
Just before the point where the ambient oxygen ran out and they would have to don their face masks, Riggs took a few swigs from his Mountain Dew. When the Humvees could go no farther, around the 9-mile mark, Hoss hopped out, and he and Riggs began loading the boat with gear. They would head out on foot as part of that day’s expedition crew, with Hoss serving as foreman. Billy was supposed to be their third man. But his back was hurting him from the plug-pulling operation the day before, so he opted to stay in the Humvee and asked DJ to go in his place.
DJ balked, calling him a wuss. Maybe so, Billy said, “But I’m your boss.” They both laughed.
“All right, I’ll go,” DJ said. “But when I bring those plugs back, you’re loading them in the Humvee.”
As the foreman, Hoss would have a direct communications wire connecting him to Tim in the Humvee. Before the three-man team left, Tim told Hoss to call with frequent updates, so he could relay them up to Harald.
Topside, there wasn’t much for Harald and Tap to do in between those updates. As the morning wore on, Tap did an on-air phone interview with a Boston TV station – commenting not about the tunnel but rather the big story of the day. A few nights earlier, JFK Jr.’s plane had crashed off Martha’s Vineyard, and that morning divers were recovering his body.
Meanwhile, in the pitch blackness of down under, Hoss set up the boat with the breathing manifold around diffuser No. 4, just before the final stretch of the tunnel choked down to the 5-foot diameter. DJ and Riggs had lumbered and crawled out to the very end, to diffusers No. 1 and No. 2, to grab the plugs that had been yanked the day before and drag them back a few hundred feet to load them in the boat. Then they went to work removing the plug from diffuser No. 3. Riggs had the toughest job. He had to pump out any water in the 30-inch-wide pipe connecting the diffuser riser to the tunnel, then shimmy into the pipe, use a special wrench to remove the steel clips holding the plug in place, and then carefully slide both the plug components and his 5-foot-8 body out of the pipe without disturbing his breathing equipment. After he was done, DJ had to go into the pipe with a video camera to document the plug removal, and then they had to load the plug onto the boat. With the plug out of diffuser No. 3, Riggs moved on to No. 4.
Just after 1 p.m., Hoss began untangling the various hoses that had started to spool around his feet. He looked up to see DJ sit down on the tunnel floor, in a strange kind of involuntary slow motion.
“Are you OK, DJ?” Hoss yelled, muffled through his face mask.
Before he could finish his sentence, Riggs went down next, falling on one knee in front of DJ.
Hoss suddenly felt lightheaded himself, in a warm and fuzzy way, as though he had just tossed back a few cocktails. He had enough presence of mind to know that warm and fuzzy was not what you want to be when you’re 9 1/2 miles away from land, hundreds of feet below the sea. “I need to call Tim,” he shouted.
Hoss reached Tim on his communications wire and pressed him for what the oxygen level was on the breathing system – anything under 19 percent meant trouble. He said he’d check. A few seconds later, he called back. “It’s 9.8!” Tim said, frantically. “We’re going on HP air.”
Then the line went dead.
Hoss lunged toward the manifold in the boat and flicked the lever. That switched off the mixed gas flowing into their face masks from the Humvee and replaced it with air from a canister of emergency HP they’d brought with them on the boat. He looked over to see both DJ and Riggs coming to, seeming a bit disoriented, as though startled to wake up from an unexpected flash of sleep behind the wheel of a car.
Hoss was still disoriented himself. When he couldn’t get Tim on the phone, he didn’t panic. He figured he and Billy had stepped outside the Humvee to check on the liquid gas tanks. Or maybe the water that he spotted on the microphone attached to his communications wire had somehow fried the system, making it impossible for Tim to reach him.
Still, Hoss was taking no chances. He decided the expedition crew should pack up and head back to the Humvee. Then, as they were winding up all their hoses, Riggs’s face mask started to free flow, leaving him unable to slow the rush of air hissing into his system. This was bad for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which it was a surefire way to burn through their emergency air in no time. Riggs decided to kink up his hose, opening it just enough to breathe, and then closing it after every breath.
The divers then began the 1,200-foot walk back down the dark narrow tunnel to the Humvees, dragging the boat with them. Hoss was sure that he would find Billy and Tim standing beside the vehicles, shining their miner’s lamps, and giving him, Riggs, and DJ a hard time for having screwed up the communications system.
As they made their approach, Riggs whistled as loud as he could. No response. Then the Humvees came into view. Suddenly, DJ yelled out, “Man down!” and sprinted ahead. Billy was lying outside the passenger door of one of the Humvees. DJ checked for a pulse, but there wasn’t one.
Inside the same Humvee, Tim was seated; his neck turned toward the breathing-system controls behind him, his head slumped over. Hoss didn’t know what had struck down Billy and Tim, but he knew what they were doing when they died: trying to switch the main system over to the backup air and save the lives of their fellow divers 1,200 feet away.
With the emergency air supply on the boat dwindling fast, Hoss was counting on using the four canisters of backup HP air strapped to the roof of the Humvee. But because the valves were open, Hoss couldn’t be sure which system – HP or mixed gas – was responsible for the bad air that had flowed to their face masks. The backup air couldn’t be trusted, therefore it couldn’t be used.
DJ was trying to revive Billy by doing chest compressions and “purging” his face mask with blasts of air. Distraught that it wasn’t working, DJ looked up at Riggs, who was still forced to kink and unkink his hose for every breath. He saw Riggs looking at the bodies and then down the long black tunnel to the shaft. DJ thought to himself: Riggs wants to leave now. He wants to run!
That’s when it dawned on him: They were so far from civilization that they might as well have been on the moon. Bad air had killed two of the divers, and the rest of them could very well be next. And nobody was coming in to rescue them.
As comfortable as he’d gotten with Hoss and Riggs, they were still basically strangers to him. The only guy on the team he really knew was now lying lifeless in his arms. Is this what Ron Kozlowski was talking about, when he warned him about how men can turn on each other in life-or-death situations? DJ had no boogie board, no .45.
He thought to himself: Are these guys going to stick with me? If they didn’t, he knew they had no hope of making it out alive.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Harbour.
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 wrotes 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 centre 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 counsellor’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.