Young men and women often come out to the eastern end of Long Island to challenge the elements in one way or another. There is no other way to explain the thrills of deep-sea diving, hang gliding, flying, surfing and, even in rough weather, deep sea fishing. It’s about the danger of it. And the conquest over those dangers.
Last week, two people died and two were seriously injured in accidents on the East End while engaged in these activities. The first happened on a farm in Sagaponack owned by Clifford Foster, where for more than half a century, light aircraft and small vintage planes have come and gone from a grass runway adjacent to a potato field. Last Sunday morning, Foster was holding a breakfast for all comers—meaning he had put the word out, and whoever would fly in would get breakfast. He’s been doing this once or twice a summer for years.
Around 10:15 a.m., some of the fliers—there were already five aircraft on the side of the grass runway—looked up to see a 70-year-old World War II fighter trainer beginning to make its approach. It was perfectly restored, right down to the military markings on its fuselage, Ryan ST3KR, the civilian version of the warrior fighter Ryan PT-22. It had been built in 1941.
But this Ryan, on this day, didn’t make it in. Coming in low, on course for a good landing on the grass, it suddenly, at 350 feet up, lost power and veered off. Then its engine failed entirely. As everyone watched in horror and silence, it floated down and came in hard for a landing on a strip of grass next to a cornfield on John White’s adjacent farm, slid along the grass, then flipped over on its back and continued upside down until it finally stopped. The pilot, Taylor R. Smith of East Hampton, emerged from the cockpit badly injured and had to be taken to Southampton Hospital. The passenger, a friend of his, Daniel E. Willman III of Connecticut, sitting in the seat behind, suffered severe head and facial injuries. The Bridgehampton Ambulance Corps rushed him to Stony Brook University Medical Center where he is recovering. Willman will apparently need facial reconstruction surgery.
A week later, a 27-year-old deep sea diver named Michael LaPrade and two of his friends went off from the docks in Montauk aboard the James John, a fully equipped deep sea diving ship that takes adventurers out to the wreck of the Andrea Doria. LaPrade died during that dive.
The Andrea Doria was this elegant 701-foot-long cruise ship built for the Italian Line. It had on board on that fateful day of July 25, 1956, more than a 1,100 passengers and, in the ocean off Montauk, collided in a fog with a smaller cruise ship called the Stockholm. The Stockholm, with 534 on board, lost most of its bow in the crash, hitting the Andrea Doria broadside with it, and though some in the bow died on impact, practically everybody else on board survived and the ship was able to limp to a nearby port. The Andrea Doria, however, was taking water. Rescue ships raced to it. The passengers were taken off, the pumps were started to try to bail the water, but in the end, after 11 days of struggling to make it into port, it sank. All together 46 people died in the wreck of those two ships. It was amazing so few lost their lives. Between the two ships, there were 2,453 people, counting the passengers and crew.
Soon after the Andrea Doria went down, divers began searching the sea bottom to find it. It was a long way down. The heir to a department store, Peter Gimbel, was the first to come upon it. An enthusiastic adventurer and diver, he found it after a month of searching and returned to it many times after his first visit—it lay on its side in 250 feet of water off Nantucket, at twice the depth that most feel is a safe depth for diving—and he made two famous documentary movies about it. He also made a film called Blue Water, White Death, which was the first film ever made that featured divers observing, and sometimes being attacked by, killer sharks. The film was the inspiration for Peter Benchley’s book Jaws, which was later, made into the movie by that name.
In 1984, Peter Gimbel and a crew went down to the Andrea Doria and, on live television, opened the safe of the ship to reveal the papers and jewelry stashed inside.
Since Gimbel’s discovery, however, diving down to the Andrea Doria has been a star-crossed business. Although more than 1,000 have done it successfully, 16 people have died down there over the years. And last week was the 17th.
The ship John Jack, registered in New Jersey, berths in Montauk every summer and Captain Rick Benevento makes a living taking expeditions of divers to the Andrea Doria for a day or for overnight. It’s a very tricky business diving to the Andrea Doria. It sits right adjacent to the precipice of the Continental Shelf. There are swift currents, freezing water, often blinding sand movements that reduce visibility to only five or six feet. And that far down, the ship is in total darkness. Also there is the condition of the ship itself. Spilled over on its side as it is, there are nets and cords, cargo lines, pipes and ropes and even draperies that can catch you up and tangle your lines. The salt has long since begun to eat away the iron and copper fixtures, leaving staterooms, stairways and decks all fallen in on one another with another that might go at any time. And finally, there is the need for a special mix of nitrogen, oxygen and helium that must be used in the tanks at that depth to combat the effects of the water pressure on the brain and body.
Dives to the Andrea Doria are usually limited to three and a half hours, though the divers carry enough of the gas mixture for five or six hours.
LaPrade and his two fellow divers went off the starboard side of the John Jack at 7 a.m., just after sunrise. They were, of course, attached to lines that went up to the deck of the ship. About 45 minutes into the dive, two of the divers turned and there was LaPrade, just above and not far from the wreck. They turned away, but then when they turned around again he was not there anymore. There was no clue as to what had happened.
The two remaining divers searched for LaPrade for about a half hour. Then they came to the surface and climbed aboard the John Jack.
The Coast Guard arrived with aircraft and cutters and made a search of the ocean surface to try to find LaPrade. But he was not to be found. Around 12:30 p.m., the two divers returned to the sea bottom to search for him, and did find his body, lying on the sea floor not far from the Andrea Doria. They brought him up.
The John Jack was met at its berth in Montauk by the East Hampton Town Police Chief Ed Ecker and his officers, who took possession of the body and brought it to a morgue. Subsequent tests and a full autopsy did not reveal how LaPrade had died, but there was no doubt it was an accident. There were no suspicious circumstances.
LaPrade’s father, Paul LaPrade, 60, told the press that deep sea diving was his son’s life. Born and raised in California, his son had gone to Bentley College in Massachusetts and now worked at an Import-Export firm in Los Angeles. He had done dives off Mexico and Belize and along the American West Coast. His trip east to Montauk would be the capstone of his career as a diver. The Andrea Doria, with all its losses over the years, is still considered the Mount Everest of the diving world and the greatest of all achievements. Possessing a plate or spoon from the ship is a great trophy.
“Diving was what he loved to do more than anything,” his father said.
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The final tragedy of this past week was the death of still another diver.
Timothy Barrow, 64, of Reading, Pennsylvania was here in Montauk last Thursday to dive down to the Norness, an oil tanker that was torpedoed by German U-Boats 60 miles south of Montauk in 1942. He, with others, was also taken to the site of this sunken ship by the John Jack out of Montauk, the closest landfall to the wreck.
Around 11 a.m., he and another diver went into the water to have a look at the Norness. This ship, of Panamanian registry, was a giant oil tanker for its day, almost 500 feet long, filled with 4.5 million gallons of heavy oil, headed for England. The date it was sunk was January 14, 1942 and its sinking marked, just 40 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the beginning of a disastrous series of merchant ship sinking in the Atlantic by the Germans. It lies now on the sea bottom, 270 feet below the Atlantic, and it still carries its load of oil.
The two divers went down and spent 20 minutes exploring the ship, then came up slowly, with a series of stops to decompress from this deep dive to avoid the bends. But, according to the diver who accompanied Barrow, he never stopped to decompress and just went straight up. On the surface, obviously in distress, he called to those on board, who came to his rescue, but when he was taken aboard, he was in full cardiac arrest. Again, back at Montauk, Chief Ecker and his men claimed the body.
The diving continues—though not with the John Jack for the moment; it’s currently touring Block Island. As for other dangerous activities, some people thrive on the adventure of it all. That’s just the way it is.