OSH Might Not Approve

24 Jul

From June 1960 Popular Science comes a tale of the salvage of a fishing boat in 300 feet of water – well below diving depths at the time.

The Neper meanwhile, had anchored a buoy to the deep-drowned hull and gone home. Officials of the U. S. Salvage Association regarded the buoy and its connected problems in perplexity.

It was then that a seasoned Seattle diver and salvager named Leiter Hockett stepped forward. He offered a weird solution to the initial puzzle of how to identify and inspect the boat that lay so far out of reach. He offered to be let down at the site in a homemade diving chamber, which he had built eight years before.

Some people said this object looked more like an eccentric oil drum than anything else. Actually, its corrugated steel shell, nine feet long and around 30 inches across, had been the firebox flue inside a Scotch marine boiler. It had been made to withstand external pressure, of as much as 450 p.s.i. Hockett figured that this was roughly equivalent to the pressure of water at a depth of 1,000 feet. He had decided to convert the boiler flue into a diving chamber.

The result was strange-looking and obviously dangerous, but it had worked so far.

Hockett had stood the cylinder on end and cut a belt of small, round holes at eye level in the folds of its steel skin. He had filled the holes with laminated, shock-resistant glass, 4 1/2 inches in diameter and 1 5/8 inches thick. The windows were tilted slightly downward, so he could see below when he was in the chamber.

The cylinder had an inside diameter of only 27 inches. Hockett got in and out through an oval hatch, so small that it seemed impossible for his square body and massive shoulders to squeeze through. As it was, when he was ready to make a descent in the diving chamber, he had to toss his fleece-lined jacket and trousers through the hatch, wriggle after them in his underwear, and put them on inside.

To weight the chamber properly, he had filled the bottom end with a half-ton of cement and steel, and covered the foot-high heap of ballast with a floor plate.

Once the hatch cover was closed above him, like the door of a tomb, it was bolted and barred from outside. His only connections with the surface while underwater were a two-way telephone and the supporting wire cable. They were paid out by a 90-hp. engine on a floating crane that lowered and raised his chamber as if it were a plumb bob.

When the hatch clanged shut, Hockett donned an Air Force breathing mask and began to inhale pure oxygen from a tank in the chamber. Soda-lime containers absorbed the carbon dioxide he exhaled. The chief hazard was the slow rise in atmospheric pressure. Within the tiny sealed chamber, it went up at the rate of three pounds an hour. The safe limit was a rise of 15 pounds, so he could not stay below more than five hours.

  • Smiling, Leiter Hockett is about to have the hatch clamped down on him before perilous descent in homemade diving chamber. On first try, he found nothing. Following day with Sea Scanar help, flood lamps attached above his chamber spotlighted Cape Douglas wreck.

  • Anxious moments came when the floating crane began to haul up Hockett and his many-eyed diving chamber. It was entangled in the sunken boat’s rigging. Slacking the line and reeling in again didn’t help. Breaking himm loose by brute force seemed the only chance. But if the rope broke, it meant certain, slow death by suffocation. Then, at a mighty pull, the rigging gave. Hockett was on his way up.

I can safely say that of the numerous ways one wouldn’t like to die, slowly suffocating in the dark in a sealed chamber at the bottom of the sea comes well up the list.

Many years ago I read exactly such a scene in “The Found Atlantis” (1936), a rather bizarre novel by Dennis Wheatley:

After what seemed to be an eternity but was actually no more than a minute they came to rest on the bottom with a gentle bump. The blue beam from the Doctor’s torch, focused on a porthole, penetrated the inky blackness no more than a foot, but into it there swam a new snake-like creature from above. Dead black, no more than three inches thick, and seemingly endless, it passed through the beam in graceful looping curves. The McKay stared at it with sudden horror. He knew that it was no living thing but the cable coiling down from above as it sank in great festoons about them. It had snapped, and they were trapped there, 900 fathoms down, where no human hand could ever bring them aid.

This, however, was fiction. Wheatley’s protagonists survive as they are scooped up by ancient pumps built by Atlanteans thousands of years before. Delivered into a pocket of air, they then face the challenge that they are on the INSIDE of a bathysphere – and the bolts that fasten the hatch are on the OUTSIDE. They have to slowly dismantle the machinery that forms the base of the device in order to escape.

Time passed. The air became thin and rarified. It was as difficult to draw sufficient into their lungs as if they had been locked up for hours in the dry heat of the hottest room in a Turkish bath. Camilla said nothing but she had an awful feeling that instead of being about to faint again she was really dying now. She tried desperately hard to keep herself upright but her body suddenly went limp and she fell forward in a crumpled heap. Vladimir saw her and motioned to Bozo to take his place then, as the gunman crawled painfully forward, he lifted Camilla tenderly in his arms, kissed her gently on the cheek, and propped her up against the side of the sphere next to the oxygen tanks where she would reap the benefit of more than her fair share of their precious supply.

After two hours and a half they had cleared the second lot of machinery and begun on the third floor, but the air had become positively stifling. Their breath came in quick short pants and an examination of the oxygen tanks showed that even with the reduced supply they had only three quarters of an hour to go. Another hour and they would certainly all be dead.

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