Sprawling account of a preventable tragedy during the gigantic cleanup of Boston Harbor.
Boston Globe Magazine staff writer Swidey (Journalism/Tufts Univ.; The Assist: Hoops, Hope, and the Game of Their Lives, 2008) tackles an obscure topic with precision, looking at the little-known field of commercial diving and its otherworldly environs. In 1999, a small crew of divers was recruited to solve a minor-seeming problem; after nearly a decade of tunneling deep under the harbor, the mammoth Deer Island sewage-treatment tunnel was completed, except for the removal of 55 “safety plugs” that had protected the tunnel builders from flooding prior to the removal of the tunnel’s ventilation system. At this point, there were so many construction corporations and governmental entities involved that, after extensive disagreement on the best way to remove the plugs, the task was subcontracted to two small diving companies and a socially awkward whiz-kid engineer who considered himself an expert in hazardous dives. Yet, the engineer foisted upon the divers a jury-rigged air delivery system that a state police investigator later thought resembled “an eighth-grade science fair project gone horribly wrong.” Two divers died, and three more barely escaped from the tunnel’s airless atmosphere. In the prologue, Swidey sketches the flash-point moment when the divers’ system failed and then skillfully builds suspense, showing the development and gradual unraveling of the complicated plan. The author leisurely builds his characters’ back stories, contrasting the ambitions and eccentricities of both roughneck divers and the hard-charging “suits” who were simultaneously under court order to finish the project and determined to minimize their liabilities. Remarkably, despite investigators’ recommendations, neither the cocksure engineer (who “had shown willful disregard for the lives of the divers”) nor anyone else was held liable for the deaths. Swidey delves enthusiastically into the minutiae of law, diving, public works and worker safety under extreme circumstances. The complicated narrative sustains interest despite occasional meandering.
A story of infrastructure told on a human scale and a trenchant reminder that the modern metropolis comes with high risks and savage costs.