The Abyss

The dive and construction crew were a mixed lot. Their colorful personalities carried us through the grind of the hot workdays. The time that we spent in the water as commercial divers was the fun part; the topside duties could be dull. Nevertheless, they were important to the safety of the man in the water.

We were working on a barge moored on the upriver side of the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge, also known as the Route 1 Bypass Bridge. The unforgiving tides of the Piscataqua River required us to time our underwater work carefully. This summer we were making about two dives a day, setting up underwater blasting sites to clear an anchorage for a marina near Eliot on the Maine side.

From the barge we could look downriver and see the Memorial Bridge connecting Portsmouth with Badger’s Island. In the other direction loomed the towering I-95 Bridge, with its steady flow of traffic.

The August heat was a nuisance; I would count the minutes until we would be released at 4 p.m. each day. The dive supervisor, Wayne Richardson, had us in a motel in Kittery. The usual drill was for us to wind up at operations around 3:45 p.m., secure and clean the gear and take an old beat up van to the motel. After showers and a motel restaurant meal that usually wasn’t too bad, most of the crew would head to clubs and restaurants in Portsmouth. I usually excused myself to head back to my room to watch the Red Sox and check out early. I was over 40, after all.

On this particular morning, a Friday, I was being outfitted with the surface supply helmet, bail out bottle (for emergencies) and a harness. No wetsuit necessary in these summer waters; I wore jeans, a t-shirt and old sneakers. From the deck of the barge I surveyed the water and both shorelines.

My job on this day was to place PVC pipe in the holes that the construction crew had drilled in the river bed. This would keep the holes open until the lead diver could place sticks of nitro explosive in the holes, and wire them to detonate. The barge would then be moved, three long horns sounded and the water would erupt with rocks and debris a safe distance from the barge and the bridge. As I stood on the platform on the side of the barge, I attached myself to the down line and did a communications check. Rico, the young man of Mexican lineage who was a local, answered me back. The night before, he had passed out from heavy drinking at Margaritas, when he was making some progress with an interested young woman. The crew joked with him later that he had been doing fine, until he wasn’t able to talk anymore.

I smiled at the story, and glanced at the old guy, Howie. Nicknamed “Grizzly Adams” by me (he had a scraggly gray beard and long hair), he was apparently a homeless local. He would come down to the river bank to watch us work every day, in his old beat up pickup truck. I thought it was great that Wayne recruited him as a deck hand; he gave Howie a few bucks each day plus food from our lunch coolers. In exchange, Howie was affable and told stories about the river years ago; he also collected trash and helped clean gear.

My dive tender checked my hookups and I got ready to enter the water. I had recently deployed to Iraq with the Army; although I could not claim to have been traumatized by anything, the dive work and camaraderie of my fellow workers had helped me to unwind. The underwater world always fascinated me, even when visibility was zero or close to it. It was fun work.

I gave my tender a thumbs up and descended the ladder to the water line. Grasping the down line and hooking up to it, I made sure that my air hose stayed untangled. As I descended the daylight faded; it was almost completely dark when I hit bottom. A small fish, immune to the current, hovered about five inches from the faceplate of my Kirby Morgan Band mask. I fancied that he was amused by humans needing all of our equipment underwater.

On the bottom I paused to orient myself. The current here was moderate and could be a problem if separated from the down line. I did a commo check that was confirmed by Rico’s heavy Latino accent. I found the pile of PVC pipe that had been lowered yesterday from the barge.

There was a slight tilt to the river bed, and I swung my body around the deeper side of the work site to search for the drilled holes. As I did so, my feet brushed something apparently metal that was half exposed from the mud. Curious, I ran my hands along the object, and recognized the familiar lines of a metal drum. Maybe four feet long and two feet wide, if the unexposed portions extended like I expected.

My Army training insisted I identify what it was and the contents. It would be catastrophic if we were working in a biohazard field, or near some unexploded ordnance.

I told Rico what I was doing; I then pressed my faceplate against the metal drum near the top.

In the darkness I could barely make out faded lettering on chipped orange painting on the drum. My hands and eyes then followed the contours of the object to the top; the round lid was cracked open. It was like it was rolled back, without coming off completely.

Curiosity got the better of me as I bent it open the rest of the way. There was a grinding and creaking sound, muffled by the surrounding water.

The first thing I saw was old clothing, frayed and faded with time. And as I shone the light down into the drum and poked around a little, I discovered a skeletal hand.

To add to the surrealism of the moment, there were a couple of rings on the fingers.

I had started to hyperventilate; I quickly brought my breathing under control. I remembered how I once had to inventory cadavers with a biometrics device in Iraq, when some insurgents were shot up by coalition forces. If I could manage that, I could deal with this.

The language, or at least accent barrier, was a bit of an obstacle. Rico was a little high strung. He did not seem to digest what I was reporting to him; I asked for Wayne to come on the radio.

With a firm and clear, “What have you got?” Wayne helped me to settle down my nerves. I reported to him that I had found what appeared to be evidence of a crime; in fact, a weighted cadaver.

Wayne would know what to do; he told me he had once worked as a recovery diver in Florida.

He told me to stand by; perhaps he wanted us to coordinate a recovery right now. Then when he came back on comms, I could hear commotion in the background.

While I waited for further instructions, I pondered how this poor victim had met their demise. Then a sudden thought sent cold currents through my bloodstream. Were there more drums surrounding me, just out of view? Had we unknowingly been working in the dumping ground of a serial killer?

It was right then that my dive band mask, supplied by compressed air topside, chose this time to begin filing with water. There was a valve on the side that kept a steady stream of air across your face, defogging the faceplate and keeping water out. Now, however, the stream of air was reducing in strength. Not only that, it did not respond to my adjustments.

I called topside again, to no avail. Something was wrong.

Remembering the line pulls we had rehearsed for contingencies, I pulled hard on the air hose to get Mark’s attention. No response. I pulled hard two more times, and on the second pull the air hose went slack. I pulled on it again and the last of my breathable air disappeared; at the very same time I observed the end of the air hose.

Someone or something had sliced through the air hose.

My lungs felt like they were collapsing; I reached for the bailout bottle. With the aid of the small scuba apparatus, I was soon breathing again. However, I knew it to only be good for about five minutes. I had to make my way to the surface.

I reached out for the down line; it wasn’t there.

Frantically searching around with my dive light, I caught a glimpse of the down line curving off into the distance. It had suffered the same fate as the air hose.

I clung to the drum as the current nearly pulled me down river.

Okay. I was no kid anymore; even when much younger I could not count on a fast free swim to the surface. With the occasional tanker going up and down river, a panicked move like that could be disastrous.

As I spread my hands out for balance, my right hand fell on top of some sand bags used to weigh down the equipment we were using. My air was rapidly depleting - I would have to move fast. I separated two from the pile, one for each hand. I was then able to walk up the slope of the river bed, and not succumb to the currents.

I had to make good time if I was able to make the river bank in time. I grinded away, trying to moderate my breathing. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Don’t panic.

Finally, the proximity of the shore and surface was revealed by surface illumination. Directly overhead I saw the barge. I decided now was the time to take a chance. I dropped my weight belt and swam up towards the dive platform. The current was not as strong near the bank and I was able to reach the dive platform.

I clawed my way out of the water just as my air ran out.

The first thing I saw was my dive tender with his back to me, peering toward the middle of the river. He then heard me, and with a relieved “Jesus Christ!” he disconnected the dive helmet and harness.

The next thing I noticed was a law enforcement helicopter, zipping along the shoreline at about 30 feet of altitude. And I saw Wayne on his cell phone, gesturing to what looked like police officers on the shore.

The deputies were surrounding Howie’s pickup truck; the windshield was shattered now, not like before.

Rico brought me a Coke out of the cooler; I thanked him. The rest of the crew surrounded me, and after making sure that I was okay, informed me what had happened.

Immediately upon my broadcast to Wayne about the gruesome discovery, Howie became very agitated. He then almost steamrolled Mark into the water before producing a knife from his clothing and slicing the air hose and down lines.

With the crew momentarily frozen in disbelief, and Wayne torn between communicating with me and dealing with this inconceivable circumstance, Howie had made an escape to the shoreline in the construction launch. And then, with the crew watching in horror, took a shotgun out of the cab of his pickup, sat down with it in the front seat, and shot himself in the head.

Wayne, myself and the rest of the crew were finishing interviews and statements with the State Police that same night. The others looked how I felt: stunned and exhausted. At about 9 p.m. a trooper brought us dinner from a nearby establishment. We gratefully indulged, having missed lunch.

By 10 p.m. Trooper Cantrell called us all in to a conference room. Here he explained that Howard Jenkins had taken his own life, and law enforcement divers had recovered the remains of his spouse at our work site. Edna had gone missing in 1988; her disappearance had led to a deterioration in Howie’s mental and physical state. The end result was his homelessness.

I pondered the tortured thoughts that must have gone through his mind, seeing us work at the site of where he deposited his murdered wife, decades ago. And our supervisor Wayne, acting as a good Samaritan, facilitated the tragic events of today.

We all got back to the motel around midnight and gathered in Wayne’s room. We talked until dawn; everyone had a life experience that was stirred up by this.

Wayne told us to rest up this weekend, we would hit up the work site on Monday.

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