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Death of an Aquanaut


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The crane was one of the largest in the world. During World War II, the Nazis had built three of these floating monsters in the shipyards of Kiel and Hamburg to clear the entrances to their naval bases. This crane was also one of the few pieces of seagoing hardware the Allies had the foresight to spare in the wave of ship-scuttling and factory-dynamiting that occurred in the months following the war’s end.

Now, 24 years later, this relic from a violent past was still the best of its kind, and it was serving a new kind of conquest: the conquest of inner space. Eight thousand miles from its birthplace by the stormy North Sea, it now rode the swells of the Pacific, 50 miles off the coast of San Diego.

Today, the Pacific was far from its usually placid self. Winds gusted to 35 miles per hour out of the south, unusual for this time of year. With the normal prevailing northwesterlies, the crane would have been in the lee of San Clemente Island, less than a mile away. As it was, a heavy chop battered the crane’s platform, and the iron giant strained against the chains of its five-point mooring. The articulated boom, towering nearly seven stories above the surface, groaned in its joints.

“Is it swaying?” asked Wally Jenkins.

Standing beside Jenkins, Bunton focused on the rust-colored skeleton of the boom against the background of dark, hurrying clouds. The pitching sensations could’ve come from the crane itself, the clouds or their ship being pounded by the waves.

“Can’t tell,” Bunton answered. His gaze followed the thick steel cables running from the tip of the crane down more than 100 feet to where they were attached by brawny shackles to steel rings welded to a vast metal cylinder bobbing on the water. The veteran aquanaut studied the cylinder. “Know what it looks like? Like a damn truck, a gas tanker.”

Sealab I had put four men on the ocean floor 193 feet down for 11 days at a cost of $148,000 in July 1964. In the fall of 1965, Sealab II saw three 10-man teams stay 15 days each at a depth of 205 feet at a cost of $1,400,000. Now, in February 1969, Sealab III was about to put five nine-man teams, for 12 days each, 610 feet below the surface at the staggering cost of $10,000,000—almost a sevenfold increase in just five years.

Bunton and Jenkins watched as the 12-foot-diameter habitat was prepared for lowering. On its bow, the words “US NAVY Sealab,” painted 2 feet high, were visible intermittently between breaking waves. Bunton fixed on the words as if in a trance when suddenly he realized that the bottom letters were no longer above water. He looked at the crane. The gigantic drum holding the steel cables was revolving ever so slowly.

Sealab III was going down. Another great adventure was about to begin.

Like so many others, Bunton was caught up in the euphoria that followed Sealab II. On the planet Earth, the oceans were the last remaining unexplored frontier, and he was one of the pioneers. He couldn’t wait for Sealab III to start.

Scott Carpenter took on even heavier responsibilities than before. For Sealab III, he was made deputy on-scene commander. He was also special assistant for aquanaut operations.

Many of the old-timers from Sealab II were now gone from the program. There was a steady influx of new naval officers assuming key positions within the project. In addition to the 40 original bottom aquanauts, there were now to be five more: Instead of the originally planned eight-person teams, nine-person teams would inhabit Sealab III on the ocean floor.

Also, the beloved Captain Bond had been stripped of much of his authority. Nominally, he was still the chief medical officer and principal investigator. But in actuality, Papa Topside retained little influence.

Bunton grew concerned over a gradual change in the Sealab command structure. Authority was being taken out of the hands of those who specialized in diving research, who’d proven their qualifications and dedication over many years, and put under the control of regular Navy line officers.

A similar change was taking place at the working level with the divers who would risk their lives to make it work. Few of the newest aquanauts were professional divers in the truest sense. Many had little or no deep-diving experience in the open seas—not the civilians chosen for their scientific marine programs, not the Navy personnel with skills fitted more for shipboard operations. True, they were recent graduates of the Navy’s six-month diving school (or its equivalent, in the case of several foreign divers). But for the most part, their “experience” consisted of simulated dives in pressurized chambers during training, followed by only shallow-water dives in Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia River and in the bays of San Diego, Long Beach and San Francisco.

One rumor that had become fact was the hefty depth at which Sealab III would take place: 610 feet. Few divers would admit to the fear this figure engendered in them. The depth was nearly three times that of Sealab II—deeper than only a handful of divers had ever gone before, none of whom had stayed down for any extended period of time like the planned 12 days for each team.

When the Navy confirmed that rumor, the first seeds of serious doubt took root in Bunton’s mind. He believed that 610 feet in the open sea was just too deep, too soon. Forty-five divers in rotating teams would be doing dozens of sophisticated in-water projects and would be totally dependent on an overhead support group of competing private contractors who already numbered 20 to 30 and were increasing seemingly without end.

The setup, Bunton felt, begged for a major disaster: technology outrunning human control, bloated staffs tripping over each other, other staffs too skimpy and ill-trained... Was Sealab III becoming too much of a life-and-death risk?

Feeling history being made, he’d begun keeping a personal journal as he started Sealab III. By now it held a litany of foul-ups, postponements and breakdowns.

During the last, seemingly endless months, valves stuck, lines fouled, equipment broke. One aquanaut nearly drowned in a pool during a training exercise in Long Beach. The personnel transfer capsule (PTC) fell into the water—with its hatch open. Deliveries were late. The habitat got flooded. Cables were miswound onto drums. The PTC was tested at 550 feet and came up filled with water. Repairs dragged. Testing procedures and arrivals of new equipment were delayed time and time again.

And so it went. For more than three years after Sealab II, Bunton’s journal recorded lengthy periods of delays spiced with short periods of rushing to meet sudden deadlines. Eventually the starting date of February 17, 1969, was set, and all hands bent to meet it.

Not quite all hands. The photographer originally scheduled for Team One, Lieutenant Laurence Bussey, saw what was coming and wanted no part of it. He hurriedly put in for a transfer and left San Clemente Island the day of the first preparatory dive on February 16.

And Scott Carpenter, frustrated and concerned by the plague of problems, considered leaving the project shortly before it began. He stayed on only out of loyalty to the rest of the divers.

Bunton stayed, too. He grew more apprehensive with each passing day. But he felt his obligation was to make it through, and contribute to a successful Sealab III. Just another few weeks and it would all be over—successfully, he hoped.

The spot chosen for the placement of Sealab III was ideal. West-northwest of San Diego, the water was deep yet clear. Nearby San Clemente Island provided shelter for surface vessels and living quarters for the support personnel. The Navy already had existing facilities on the island, which lay in the vast top-secret military sea range used for testing the Polaris and Poseidon missiles, for surface-ship bombardments and for various underwater experiments.

Everything was bigger and better for Sealab III. The Berkone, the earlier support barge, had been replaced by the Elk River, a 203-foot former rocket-launching ship especially modified and outfitted for deep-sea diving projects. Gone, too, were the old roving bells; at the more extreme depths of Sealab III there could be no free dives to the bottom. Aquanauts would ride to the ocean floor in the supposed comfort of enclosed, heated PTCs, after already being compressed to bottom depth in large pressurized deck decompression chambers, or DDCs, aboard the Elk River.

When the Sealab III habitat touched bottom at 8:55 p.m. on February 15, Bunton was back in his quarters on the island. He needed his eight hours of sleep. The next day would start with an early-morning briefing, then for him a 4 p.m.–to–midnight watch in the communications van helping to monitor the first dive.

The skiff brought Bunton back to the Elk River at 6:45 the following morning. Aquanaut Wilbur Eaton greeted him at the top of the gangplank.

“Mornin’, Bill. We’ve got trouble already.”

“What kind this time?”

“The habitat’s sprung a leak.”

“How bad?”

“Dunno. I think they’re getting ready to send the first team down to fix it. See?”

Bunton followed Eaton’s pointing finger to the foredeck, where the two 8-foot diameter PTCs, those containers that were to be the aquanauts’ elevator cages to the bottom, were sitting like giant Crock-Pots. Three or four men were busy checking the helium-oxygen flasks, each nearly 6 feet high and secured vertically against the outside of the capsules.

“Anybody inside yet?” Bunton asked.

Eaton shook his head. “Not in the PTCs. Maybe in the DDCs, though.”

The airtight deck decompression chambers, like the PTCs, were located just below and perpendicular to the deck on the Elk River. Their purpose was to compress the divers before descent by gradually increasing atmospheric pressure to the same pressure as the water’s at the depth of the planned dive, and to reverse that process by decompression after the dive. At the same time as the pressure was changed, so was the “air,” from oxygen-nitrogen to nearly pure helium, and back. (At bottom depth, the oxygen in the breathing medium would be sustained at less than 2 percent—a far cry from the 20% at sea level.)

Because of the length of compression and decompression time required for dives as deep as Sealab III, the DDCs were more than mere hyperbaric chambers. They were compact but fairly spacious living quarters with most of the comforts of home including TV, a shower and, through a small airlock, hot food. In the bulkhead of each DDC was a separate attachment lock, through which the divers would transfer to the PTC before a dive and return the same way. Before the actual transfer took place, the capsule would also be pressurized to bottom depth.

The briefing began promptly at 7 a.m. Conducting it was Captain William M. Nicholson, who’d recently been appointed overall project manager. His career up until then had centered on naval engineering and ship designing. Nicholson confirmed what Bunton had already heard: The habitat, lowered the previous night, was leaking gas.

The situation was not dangerous. The habitat was still vacant, and the leaks were being controlled by pumping additional gas through the main umbilical at an over-pressure high enough to keep the water out. The main problem was not one of water coming in, which could be dealt with if only a small amount entered, but one of gas escaping. The rate of loss was about 3,000 cubic feet per hour, Nicholson said. At that rate, the gas storage tanks on the Elk River and the support supply barge would be depleted in just over a day.

“Are we bringing it up?” someone asked.

Nicholson shook his head. “No. Not yet, anyway. We still have some time to decide. Right now, the thinking is to send down the entry team and see whether we can find those leaks and plug them.”

Bunton’s descent to the bottom and 12-day stay wouldn’t begin for several weeks. He was scheduled to go with Team Four. Until then, like the rest of the aquanauts, he had to perform various topside support functions.

At 3:45 p.m., he checked in at the communications van to relieve Martin Harrell, a fellow civilian diver, who quietly began briefing him. Commander Jack Tomsky, a nonscientist who specialized in ship salvage and repair, was the designated commanding officer for Sealab III. During the day, Harrell related, Tomsky had made the decision to compress four divers from Team One to bottom pressure in three hours—five times as fast as the 15 hours the medical advisors recommended and planned for. It was now crucial that they go down, enter the habitat and seal the leaks as quickly as possible.

At the same time, the remaining five members of Team One were being compressed at the regular rate. They would either act as a backup squad or, if all went well, descend as scheduled. The first four had already completed compression in the DDC and were awaiting the go-ahead for transfer to the PTC.

“Barth’s team,” Bunton confirmed. That team had been picked weeks before for the job of opening and securing the Sealab for all who were to follow during the next two months: Robert Barth, 38, a chief warrant officer; Berry Cannon, 33, a civilian engineer at the Navy’s Mine Defense Laboratory in Panama City, Florida; Richard Blackburn, 30, of San Diego, the youngest and strongest of the team and the only newcomer to Sealab; and as Lieutenant Bussey’s recent replacement, John Reaves, 37, a photography specialist from Ventura, California. Both Reaves and Blackburn were rated ordnancemen in the Navy.

Bunton settled into his seat in front of the control panel. His job was to monitor and log the readouts of a number of gauges indicating such data as differential pressure (DP) being pumped inside the habitat from the Elk River.

By 5 p.m., the first team of divers had entered the PTC and completed the check-off procedures. At 5:25 the capsule was lifted off the DDC and lowered into the water. At 6:15 it reached bottom depth and was positioned about 40 feet from Sealab III. At 6:54 two of the four—Barth and Cannon—opened the PTC hatch and dropped into the water. Dragging their breathing-gas umbilical cords, they swam toward the habitat. Reaves and Blackburn remained in the capsule, both as a support team and to stay in telephone contact with the communications van topside.

Inside the van, the voices coming through the loudspeaker were loud but far from clear. The helium effect was at work, imparting a high-pitched quacking Donald Duck quality to the human voices.

Bunton strained to make out the words. One phrase he caught several times: “Cold. Very cold.” At 7:07, Blackburn reported that Cannon was back in the PTC and complaining of extreme fatigue and coldness. Bunton checked the time. Only 13 minutes in the water and Cannon was done in—but Cannon had completed his primary job, which was to open the No. 3 ballast tank valve for flooding, which in turn firmly secured Sealab to the bottom with the added weight of tons of seawater.

Movement flickered on one of the TV monitors. Into view came the shape of a diver, pulling his umbilical behind him. That would be team leader Bob Barth.

There was only one in-water camera at the bottom that gave an exterior view of Sealab, and it wasn’t maneuverable. It was fixed on the most critical spot, the entrance hatch area on the underside of the diving station.

The crew in the van watched as Barth settled on the platform suspended just above the ocean floor, about 8 feet under the entrance hatch leading into the habitat diving station compartment. He climbed a few feet up the entry ladder, his head disappearing behind the 18-inch-high iron skirt surrounding the hatch he had previously “blown down” (using compressed gas to remove the water). The skirt area provided a small gas pocket that allowed him some maneuverability. Along with his head, both of his arms were out of the water and for the most part hidden from view. Only the elbows and lower two-thirds of his body were visible.

The figure remained in that position for several minutes. The viewers in the van could see what was happening: Barth was trying to push open the hatch into the habitat, but it wouldn’t move. Made of steel, it was spring-loaded and should have opened with medium effort as long as the internal pressure inside the habitat was the same as the water pressure outside.

But the pressure was not equal. For the last three hours, Bunton had been entering the habitat’s differential over-pressure into the log every 15 minutes. The figures had not varied significantly in that time. But at 7:05, as Barth began his struggle with the hatch, “plus 8 PSI” registered on the gauge.

Bunton calculated rapidly, conservatively using only 6 pounds per square inch DP ... the hatch was about 4 feet squared, or 16 square feet ... 144 square inches to the square foot ... that was 16 times 144 times 6... Bunton winced, momentarily stunned at the concluding figure: There was more than 6 tons of weight on top of that hatch!

Barth would never be able to open it; didn’t they realize that? Bunton twisted around in his seat and started to say something. But the station commander, a seasoned lieutenant, preoccupied with trying to understand the quacking reports coming from the PTC, waved him off.

With puzzled concern, Bunton then turned to Lieutenant Matt Eggar sitting next to him and quietly asked if he knew what the plan was when the gas overcharge was to be shut off. Eggar didn’t know, and he appeared as puzzled as Bunton.

Turning back to his screen, Bunton became mesmerized by the unfolding events. He saw that Barth was still frozen in the same position. Although the TV monitor didn’t show it, Bunton knew that Barth’s knees had to be trembling from the exertion of pushing upward against the entrance hatch. Damn, Bunton thought, doesn’t Barth know it’s impossible?

But then, how could he? There was no communication between the diver and the PTC, or the diver and topside. Barth could only assume that the habitat pressure had been equalized. And on that premise, he could only conclude that something else was causing the hatch to stick.

Finally, Barth moved. He had given up. His head came into view again as he sank beneath the hatch skirt, and his hands went to his umbilical cord. He was hauling himself back to the PTC.

“I almost didn’t make it—had a hard time breathing,” Barth reported afterward, adding that had the PTC been just 20 feet farther, he couldn’t have gotten back to it.

But make it he did, at 7:12 p.m., and he immediately went on the built-in breathing emergency system. One hour and 34 minutes later, the transfer capsule was back aboard the Elk River and mated to the DDC.

The problem of the helium loss remained. It was now nearly 9 p.m., and the gas supply on both the Elk River and the supply barge tied up next to her was getting low. More gas had been ordered but was not expected until seven hours later, around 4 a.m.

Sealab command had a decision to make. The start of Sealab III had already been delayed several times. The Navy had finally committed itself to a certain date, February 17. It was now the night of the 16th. At least a dozen reporters waited on the island to cover the event. Another delay would be terrible publicity.

The choice was to go down again as soon as possible and give it another try.

Within an hour, Sealab command made another choice: The same team that had just come back up would go down again, despite the fact that a second team, compressed to the 610-foot bottom depth at the planned rate of compression since 10 a.m. that day, rested and fresh, was still on standby in the other DDC.

Both decisions tempted fate beyond endurance.

The conclusion of “Death of an Aquanaut” will appear in the March issue.—Editor
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