Horror in a tunnel

Trapped Under the Sea
By Neil Swidey, Broadway Books 2014, 432 pp., $18.90 (hardcover), available in paperback and e-book.

Reviewed by Sandy Marsters
For Points East

media-tunnelHere’s a gripping tale that that is unfortunately very true. It’s a story that mixes high drama, tragedy, rotten luck, stupidity, cowardice, litigiosity, incompetence (on a grand scale), hubris, greed, carelessness, and grief with courage, luck, and a ton more grief. It’s really unbelievable. And it happened right under our keels while nobody was looking.

Well, at least nobody who should have been looking – like the government folks who, if they had been doing their jobs, could have saved the lives of two men. Or like the so-called engineer who, had he actually known what he was doing rather than just pretended to, could have kept five young men out of danger rather than sending them into an unimaginable hell deep under Massachusetts Bay.

There are a lot of reasons that “Trapped Under the Sea” should never have needed to be written, but none of them involve the judgment of author Neil Swidey, a Boston Globe journalist who knows a good story when he sees it, rips tirelessly into the reporting, and molds what he discovers into a compelling and very readable narrative.

No, the story shouldn’t have been needed to be told because it never should have happened.

Just 25 years ago, the same Boston Harbor – now a lovely playpen for boaters, fishermen and swimmers – was a cesspool. A judge ordered that it be cleaned up. Which meant that, instead of dumping raw sewage into the harbor, it would have to be cleaned up in an ultra-modern treatment plant and the treated effluent piped 10 miles out to sea to be released from the ocean floor.

So a tunnel was bored from Deer Island, the place with the white domes – which anyone who has ever been on the Boston waterfront, or on Boston Harbor, or in the air flying in or out of Logan airport has seen. The effluent was to be pumped out to sea, directly under The Graves lighthouse, and on for another five miles before narrowing sharply and ending.

Done. Great. But, oops.
Somebody still needed to remove the plugs from the 55 diffuser risers that rose from the tunnel and would

release the treated effluent into the sea. And the plugs could only be removed from inside the tunnel, from which the infrastructure had been removed. No lights. No air. No life.

Five professional divers signed up for the job, which surely would have been turned down by a Navy SEAL team. I’m not giving anything away, because anyone over the age of six would know that this was not going to turn out well.

Swidey plays it just right as, one by one, he introduces us to the main characters, until we feel we know them well. Then he dives into the complexity of the project, based largely on court testimony and interviews with survivors and other participants. He is a very organized reporter, and the story unfolds clearly and uninterrupted to its inevitable, terrible end.

This is a sea story, men fighting the elements under terrifying and overwhelming circumstances. It could have been a largely secret story – hidden under miles of sea, forgotten in the endless wash of news – but for Swidey’s efforts.

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