A quarter-century ago, Boston had the dirtiest harbor in America. Read more...
A quarter-century ago, Boston had the dirtiest harbor in America. The city had been dumping sewage into it for generations, coating the seafloor with a layer of black mayonnaise. Fisheries collapsed, wildlife fled, and locals referred to floating tampon applicators as beach whistles.
In the 1990s, work began on a state-of-the-art treatment plant and a 10-mile-long tunnel its endpoint stretching farther from civilization than the earth s deepest ocean trench to carry waste out of the harbor. With this impressive feat of engineering, Boston was poised to show the country how to rebound from environmental ruin. But when bad decisions and clashing corporations endangered the project, a team of commercial divers was sent on a perilous mission to rescue the stymied cleanup effort.Five divers went in; not all of them came out alive.
Drawing on hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents collected over five years of reporting, award-winning writer Neil Swidey takes us deep into the lives of the divers, engineers, politicians, lawyers, and investigators involved in the tragedy and its aftermath, creating a taut, action-packed narrative. The climax comes just after the hard-partying DJ Gillis and his friend Billy Juse trade assignments as they head into the tunnel, sentencing one of them to death.
An intimate portrait of the wreckage left in the wake of lives lost, the book which Dennis Lehane calls "extraordinary" and compares with The Perfect Storm is also a morality tale. What is the true cost of these large-scale construction projects, as designers and builders, emboldened by new technology and pressured to address a growing population s rapacious needs, push the limits of the possible? This is a story about human risk how it is calculated, discounted, and transferred and the institutional failures that can lead to catastrophe.
Suspenseful yet humane, Trapped Under the Sea reminds us that behind every bridge, tower, and tunnel behind the infrastructure that makes modern life possible lies unsung bravery and extraordinary sacrifice."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-11-04
- Reviewer: Staff
Since the opening of Boston’s immense Deer Island Sewage Treatment Plant in September 2000, the “giant, stinking cesspool” of Boston Harbor has cleared significantly in what has been widely hailed as an environmental engineering triumph. This gripping history focuses on construction of its business end: the world’s longest dead-end tunnel, which travels 9.5 miles though bedrock, ending in 55 vertical pipes that diffuse effluent far out to sea. In hindsight, disaster was inevitable, since the project’s contract stated that these pipes’ 55 safety plugs could be extracted only when the tunnel was complete—meaning all drainage, ventilation, transportation, and electrical systems were removed. Commercial divers tackled the job. Years of research and interviews by Boston journalist Swidey (The Assist: Hoops, Hope, and the Game of their Lives) has produced a fascinating account of these skilled blue-collar men and their mission, aborted when a malfunctioning oxygen supply killed two of them. While others later completed the job, Swidey describes the years of bitterness and litigation that followed. This virtuoso performance combines insights into massive engineering projects, corporate litigation, environmental science, and cutthroat free-market behavior with vivid personal stories. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, Wylie Agency. (Feb.)
A Boston Harbor diving mission gone wrong
On July 21, 1999, a crane lowered experienced construction diver DJ Gillis and four other men down a 420-foot shaft to the opening of an almost 10-mile tunnel beneath Deer Island in Boston Harbor. At the end of the day, only three men would return alive.
In a compelling tale of corporate and public mismanagement, Boston Globe Magazine writer Neil Swidey tells the gripping stories of courage, deceit and devastating loss that emerged from the Deer Island debacle in Trapped Under the Sea.
After Boston Harbor was rated one of the most polluted in the nation, public officials launched a $300 million project in the early 1990s to pipe wastewater through a tunnel to the ocean. In spite of significant early progress, work on the tunnel eventually bogged down. By the time Gillis and his co-workers were hired to unplug a series of smaller pipes, the companies that built the tunnel had all but abandoned it, raising many questions. “How could this idea of sending divers to a place as remote as the moon, asking them to entrust their lives to an improvised, untested breathing system, have ever made sense to sensible people?” Swidey asks. “The answer,” he points out, “lies in the dangerous cocktail of time, money, stubbornness, and frustration near the end of the over-budget, long delayed job.”
Drawing on hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents, Swidey pulls us into the lives of the divers and the aftermath of the perfect storm of forces that led to the deaths of two of them. He chronicles the psychological trauma into which the three surviving divers spiral, emphasizing that no matter how the tunnel project was successfully completed, “no one came out of this feeling like a winner.”
In this compelling page-turner, Swidey grabs us as soon as we enter that narrow elevator shaft and never lets up as we accompany the men on their sad and frightening journey.