Book review for Bostonians: Trapped Under the Sea

If you live in Boston and/or are interested in commercial diving or big engineering projects, Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness is a great book.

Neil Swidey describes events from the late 1990s that were critical to completing the Boston Harbor clean-up project. Treated wastewater would travel from the Deer Island sewage plant through a 10-mile-long tunnel underneath the Massachusetts Bay and then rise up to be discharged at the seafloor, about 100 feet underwater. So that people building the tunnel wouldn’t be at risk of flooding, the riser tubes were plugged at the seafloor. These plugs could then be removed when the project was complete. What if a big ship dragged its anchor 10 miles out into the bay? The tubes were also plugged at the bottom, 10 miles into the tunnel. Kiewit, the contractor building the tunnel, wanted to pull the lower plugs while the tunnel was still lit and ventilated, then patrol the bay to keep ships clear while the lighting and ventilation were removed. They noted that it had been about 10 years since the top plugs were installed and no ship had dislodged one. The government authority managing the project disagreed, despite the fact that it would be a violation of OSHA regulations for workers to be in the tunnel without ventilation:

The irony is that each side claimed worker safety was its primary concern. Corkum, writing on behalf of Kaiser and the MWRA, said it would be unwise to endanger the lives of up to a hundred sandhogs by leaving the tunnel vulnerable to a possible flood during the long cleanup period. Kiewit, meanwhile, said it would be insane to put a small number of workers at extreme risk by sending them into a tunnel that had 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, the Kiewit manager wrote, “the risk of catastrophe would be exponentially higher!” In frustration, Kiewit enlisted a former OSHA inspector named Fred Anderson as a consultant. In his report, Anderson stressed that the stakes were “enormous in terms of both money and political necessity.” By insisting on installing backup plugs without a clear understanding of how they would be removed, the parties involved in the project had painted themselves into a corner, he wrote. But the tunnel would not be viable if they couldn’t figure out a safe way to yank out the plugs. “They must come out!” After reading the contract closely, Anderson noted, it was clear that the people who wrote the specs intended for the plugs to be removed by a crew “dependent on self-contained breathing apparatus in an unknown and uncontrollable environment.” He stressed, “To me, this is a scary prospect.” He warned that the hazardous assignment could cost lives. And if workers died, regulatory agencies would likely shut down the tunnel, adding further delays. Anderson strongly advised Kiewit to stand firm and insist on pulling the plugs before removing the ventilation, lighting, and rail systems. Asking workers to venture nearly ten miles into a dark, unventilated tunnel hundreds of feet below the ocean, he said, would be sentencing them to “an operation somewhat akin to a spacewalk.

The technical explanations in the book are pretty good, e.g., why wouldn’t there be plenty of oxygen in a tunnel that was in fact open on one side?

Even though the ventilation line no longer extended past the four-mile mark, the divers found that oxygen levels were sufficient to sustain human life well beyond that point. But they knew that by the time the tunnel cleanup had been completed and the actual plug-removal mission had begun, those oxygen levels would be lower, for two reasons. First, the cleanup wouldn’t be considered complete until the entire bag line was yanked out. Second, the remaining oxygen at the end of the tunnel would essentially begin using itself up. In the dank, confined space of the tunnel, oxygen would be depleted by things like the growth of aerobic bacteria and the rusting of metals, such as bolts. There was also the very real possibility that oxygen would be displaced by highly toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide, methane, and hydrogen sulfide, which is produced when certain organisms decay.

The state government authority (MWRA) got its way and federal workers at OSHA blessed a plan to send commercial divers 10 miles into the tunnel with an experimental air supply based on mixing liquid gases. The government did not ask for any testing of the experimental air supply, but that doesn’t mean they waived other regulations:

The first day on the island was a blur of unloading and unpacking, after the divers went through the drug testing that the MWRA mandated of all workers on the job.

Predictably there were deaths, but few people cared.

[at a funeral] Hoss watched as Riggs stood to deliver a special reading. The reflection had actually been published as a letter to the editor in The Boston Globe two days after the accident. Written by a stranger named Parker Pettus, it contrasted the “lavish” wall-to-wall coverage of the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., who had been granted a mariner’s funeral aboard a warship, with the “unadorned” news report about the deaths of Billy and Tim. These men were not rich or famous or privileged. Certainly they would have preferred not to have been in a dangerous tunnel hundreds of feet below the surface and miles from any help. They died while doing a hazardous, unheralded job, and their contribution to a clean, revived Boston Harbor will last for generations. They will not be immortalized in the media, they will not be buried at sea from the decks of a warship. These workers are the kind of heroes who are so often taken for granted. We would do well to think of Boston’s clear, blue, living harbor as a monument to the courage and sacrifice of the ordinary heroes who made it a reality.

More: Read the book

Next on my reading list: Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients


  1. Izzie L.

    July 2, 2014 @ 11:26 am


    It’s easy to romanticize these guys and call them heroes, but the reality is a little different. One of the surviving divers uses the cash from his legal settlement (for being “traumatized” – physically he was uninjured) to become a drug addict and when that money is gone, he participates in a bank robbery.

    The engineers had to come up with a “one off” solution for an atypical situation – an oxygen free environment 400 feet underground at the end of a several mile long tunnel. There was nothing off the shelf that would work. So they jury-rigged a device made up of components intended for other uses – food packaging, etc. The Rube Goldbergish device was operated by guys who were not exactly rocket scientists. The oxygen regulator froze up and the divers were left breathing a mixture with insufficient oxygen. When the surviving divers find their colleagues unconscious and possibly dead, they strip off their masks and transport them unmasked to the tunnel exit, ensuring that they are really, really dead. A tragedy to be sure, but if the divers had wrapped their pickup trucks around an oak tree after getting drunk after work (not a remote possibility), no one would have blinked twice. But here there were lots of deep pockets to sue and enough juicy details to justify a book length treatment.

    The book attempt to make a villain out of the engineer who designed the system, but it strikes me that the problem was that one man was given complete responsibility for the design (and I am not talking about the regulators who passed on the system – they were not qualified to evaluate the design). A life safety system like this needs to be double and triple checked by other qualified engineers to make sure that nothing is being missed (and it has to be designed in a “idiot-proof” way, taking into account Murphy’s Law).

  2. philg

    July 2, 2014 @ 1:50 pm


    Izzie: If you don’t think these guys needed to do anything heroic, you could have signed up for the job. The book mentions that two big commercial diving firms declined it, saying that they didn’t have the technical expertise to conduct it safely. So you could have made about $1 million by using your knowledge about how to do this simply and easily (just hire “other qualified engineers” and have them “check stuff”) and then walked up that tunnel yourself.

  3. Patrick O'Keefe

    July 2, 2014 @ 6:45 pm


    I just read the book – in one sitting. I’m a moderately experienced recreational scuba diver, 2,000+ dives over 35 years. I’ve talked extensively with several commercial divers over the years about their work – all very impressive individuals by the way. I can’t imagine any of them taking such a job. If someone told me that there was a plan to use a newly designed, completely untested breathing system to do extremely demanding work at the end of a nine mile long tunnel under the ocean, miles of which were unbreathable, going to and fro through the tunnel on two humvees which have to tow each other in opposite directions, which themselves need liquid oxygen to function, I would simply assume they were joking.
    Before such a system is ever used in the field, much less for a task that extreme, it should have been tested for months if not years, and the operators should have been trained on that exact system for weeks if not months. There was no testing and no training whatsoever.
    I get nervous on dive boats where they mix their own Nitrox on board, repeatedly test my tank using a couple of different meters, and then get someone experienced to double check that, when I’m only going on an 80 foot dive in the open ocean. I’ve considered using rebreathers, but haven’t felt they were worth the trouble and risk – and those were the backup safety devices which got three of them out alive!
    While it was stupid to go in there, the three people that did get out were very cool and competent under extremely difficult circumstances – they did very well indeed just to come out alive.

Log in