Dissecting the Boston Harbor tunnel disaster

Posted Sunday, Feb. 16, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

Trapped Under the Sea

by Neil Swidey

Crown, $26

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As an enterprise journalist for Boston’s Globe Magazine, Neil Swidey said he takes on projects as if they were a series of university graduate seminars.

He immerses himself in a subject for weeks at a time, he writes about it, and he moves on.

The Boston Harbor tunnel disaster, mostly lost to history because of the news it competed against in July 1999, was different to him, though.

“I didn’t want to move on,” Swidey said by phone. “I felt like there was so much more to explore and explain and learn about.

“That’s what convinced me that there was a book there.”

The resulting work is Trapped Under the Sea, the captivating story of how five divers traveled almost 10 miles into a tunnel built deep into the seabed as part of the final phase of the environmental project designed to clean up the filthiest harbor in America.

Ultimately, the work turned out to be a marvel and a great example of the benefits of public-private corroboration. The Boston Harbor was revitalized and has become a critical economic engine for that region of the country.

The construction of the sewage treatment plant on Deer Island depended on a tunnel to carry waste water from the plant to the waters of the Massachusetts Bay.

Carrying out the project was far from perfect, particularly in the strategy devised by “the best and brightest” to remove safety plugs in the walls of the tunnel, which had no lights, power, ventilation or oxygen.

The fix relied on the blue-collar guys in hard hats to go where they had no business being.

Two of the five men were killed when the jury-rigged air-supply system — developed by a “Canadian engineering whiz” — that was supposed to mix the vapors of liquid oxygen with liquid nitrogen failed.

What happened to these men has been largely forgotten because of the timing of the accident. News organizations at that time became fixed on the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and his sister-in-law.

Swidey, though, brands the disaster with a human face by introducing the men to the reader and extracting lessons learned through a careful examination that he passes along in a narrative nonfiction piece that would no doubt make his glorious predecessors in the investigative magazine genre of the early 20th century proud.

The appeal to journalists is the opportunity to learn something about the world with each story they work on. Stories such as this one, Swidey said, become an opportunity to see the world on an even bigger scale, particularly in the infrastructure that makes modern life possible.

The author spent countless hours with the surviving divers, engineers, contractors, lawyers and environmentalists.

What became clear to see were the competing pressures of budgets and deadlines and the “overwhelming pressure to go forward on mega-projects” that needed to be better balanced with thorough risk assessments and more and better advocates for smart safety measures.

“We have to understand how very smart people can make very poor decisions that leave workers, often in hard hats, to bail them out,” said Swidey, a history and political science graduate of Tufts University near Boston, where he now teaches multimedia journalism as a part-time professor.

“There’s an obligation for everybody to figure out the forces that can trip up the efforts like this.”

A deeper appreciation and understanding is even more paramount in this age with the potential for even more sophisticated projects that comes with technological advances, the author insists.

“As everything looks more doable on paper or a computer screen, we have to remember that nothing is built on a computer screen. It’s built by real workers. That’s an important lesson on this.”

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