Summary and book reviews of Trapped Under the Sea by Neil Swidey

Trapped Under the Sea

One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness

By Neil Swidey

Trapped Under the Sea
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  • Hardcover: Feb 2014,
    432 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte

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Book Summary

In the 1990s, Boston built a sophisticated waste treatment plant on Deer Island that was poised to show the country how to rebound from environmental ruin. The state had been dumping barely treated sewage into the water for so long that Boston had America's filthiest harbor, with a layer of "black mayonnaise" coating the seafloor. Fisheries collapsed, wildlife fled, and locals referred to floating tampon applicators as "beach whistles." But before the dumping could stop, a team of divers had to make a perilous journey to the end of a 10-mile tunnel - devoid of light and air - to complete the construction. Five went in, but not all of them came out.

Drawing on hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents, award-winning writer Neil Swidey takes us deep into the lives of the divers, engineers, politicians, lawyers, and investigators involved in the tragedy and its aftermath, creating a taut, action-packed narrative. The climax comes just after the hard-partying DJ Gillis and his friend Billy Juse trade assignments heading into the tunnel, sentencing one diver to death and the other to a trauma-induced drug addiction that eventually lands him in prison. Suspenseful yet humane, Trapped Under the Sea reminds us that behind every bridge, highway, and tunnel - behind the infrastructure that makes modern life possible— - ies unsung bravery and extraordinary sacrifice. 

1
DJ
SIX YEARS EARLIER

DJ pulled into the driveway, got out of his Ford Bronco, and stepped into what felt like a 1980s music video. Straight ahead was a sun-tanned brunette washing her car while wearing ripped jean shorts and a wet half-shirt. As he trained his eyes on her, DJ could practically hear the thumping hair-metal-band soundtrack playing in his head. Actually, it wasn't all in his head. There was music coming from around the back of the house, where someone had placed a speaker facing out of a first-floor window.

At a picnic table, three attractive women in their early twenties sat in Daisy Duke cutoffs and tight tops, drinking wine coolers and taking in the sun on a late summer afternoon. It was a Friday in August 1993, and DJ, a month shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, had just returned to Massachusetts after more than two years working as an offshore diver in the Gulf of Mexico. During his time away, his mother and younger brother had moved into the upstairs apartment of ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

Swidey, a reporter for The Boston Globe, intermixes engineering details and descriptions of the harrowing work along with stories from the workers’ colorful lives. The technical details are presented in a lucid style, easy enough for a non-technical reader to understand (well-illustrated diagrams help). While Swidey’s narrative (which took years to research) pays generous attention to the divers and their personal backgrounds, these wide-eyed back stories sometimes teeter on the edge of reading like cloying made-for-TV material.   (Reviewed by Poornima Apte).

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Media Reviews
Esquire

Dramatic...Through his meticulous reporting, Swidey sheds light on how the largest monuments to our collective genius are also the most likely to be seriously flawed. Audacious, brilliant, imaginative construction projects are really, really hard to build—and ultimately they’re built not by the dreamers who conceived them, but by the sandhogs and divers sent deep into the earth.

The Boston Globe

Perhaps Swidey’s greatest accomplishment is how through it all — the bravery, the bungling, and the loss — he manages to attain a level of suspense akin to that accomplished by Sebastian Junger in The Perfect Storm...[A] masterfully crafted saga.

Kirkus Reviews

A story of infrastructure told on a human scale and a trenchant reminder that the modern metropolis comes with high risks and savage costs.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This virtuoso performance combines insights into massive engineering projects, corporate litigation, environmental science, and cutthroat free-market behavior with vivid personal stories.

Booklist

Starred Review. With the pacing and feel of a special-ops adventure and the insight of a public-policy investigation, Swidey details the lives of the divers, leading up to their fateful mission, the horrors of the ordeal, and its aftermath as the survivors coped with trauma and guilt.

Library Journal

Starred Review. The author provides masses of facts yet never loses sight of the people involved. The result is a valuable resource for all engineering, urban planning, and journalism collections.

Author Blurb Dennis Lehane, author of Live By Night and Shutter Island
Trapped Under the Sea is extraordinary. It bears comparison with The Perfect Storm in its brilliant evocation of everyday, working class men thrust into a harrowing, at times heroic confrontation with death and disaster.

Author Blurb Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe
Trapped Under the Sea is a heartbreaking tale of real-life bravery, real-life bungling, and real-life tragedy. Neil Swidey is a terrific storyteller.

Author Blurb Mitchell Zuckoff, author of Frozen in Time and Lost in Shangri-La
Neil Swidey has delivered a gripping, action-filled account of the human costs deep inside a feat of modern engineering. He has a remarkable knack for bringing to life indelible characters and making readers hold our breath as these brave men enter the claustrophobic world of their undersea lives.

Author Blurb Robert Kurson, author of Shadow Divers
Thrilling and beautifully told, Trapped Under the Sea delivers us into a dangerous and mysterious world, a place that speaks to our darkest fears and where heroes work, as Swidey so masterfully shows us, just beneath the surface of our everyday lives.

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Commercial Diving

Because the Boston Harbor cleanup required work underwater, a team of commercial divers was brought in. Trapped Under the Sea focuses primarily on these divers and the disastrous project that lead to two deaths.

Diver using RebreatherCommercial diving includes both offshore and inland projects. Much offshore diving is connected with the oil industry, with divers working from rigs stationed offshore. Inland diving involves engineering projects - the building and maintenance of dams, bridges - in rivers and lakes etc. Welding and other construction work is pretty common in all kinds of commercial diving projects.

Since commercial diving involves working deep under water (even up to depths of 1,000 feet) specialized equipment is par for the course. A wet suit...

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