Rapture of the Deep

A voyage into the murky underworld off Key Largo turns deadly

Richie Kohler is a professional wreck diver. Actually he's the Tiger Woods of wreck divers. The 45-year-old has discovered German U-boats, hosted the program Deep Sea Detectives on the History Channel, and recently dove the Britanic (the Titanic's sister ship), which sits 400 feet below the surface of the Aegean Sea.

Kohler, who lives in New Providence, New Jersey, is bald and broad like a bulldog. He's part of a large and gossipy network of divers, mostly men, mostly from Jersey, who are fanatics about exploring sunken ships. His phone is always ringing about a project or discovery; he calls it the "scuba yenta network."

So it really wasn't a surprise this past March 16 when he was awakened by an unexpected call. He was "whacked out," as he puts it, after a long trip to Thailand, so he didn't know the time, or whether it was day or night. His friend Dan Bartone, a local bar owner and dive boat captain, was on the other end.

In May 2002 the Spiegel Grove was intentionally sunk to attract marine life and divers
AP World Wide
In May 2002 the Spiegel Grove was intentionally sunk to attract marine life and divers
Richie Kohler, a wreck diver from New Jersey, hosts the History Channel show Deep Sea Detectives
Richie kohler
Richie Kohler, a wreck diver from New Jersey, hosts the History Channel show Deep Sea Detectives

Bartone didn't even say hello. "Have you heard?" he asked Kohler.

"Have I heard what?" Kohler said. He sat up in bed and tried to shake the sleep away. Kohler knew conversations that started with "have you heard" were rarely good.

"What happened on the Spiegel Grove," Bartone said. The Spiegel Grove was a shipwreck in Key Largo, some 1300 miles away.

Kohler mumbled no.

"Howard got out," Bartone said, referring to their mutual friend, Howard Spialter, a Westfield, New Jersey lawyer by trade. "The others are stuck on the wreck. Scott is stuck on the wreck."

Scott was Scott Stanley, a well-liked and gentle scuba instructor who was also from Westfield, a married father of two and local carpet store owner.

Bartone said that two other New Jersey divers, Jonathan Walsweer and Kevin Coughlin, were also "stuck." Kohler had met them only a couple of times; he knew Scott Stanley the best. He took a deep breath. His first instinct was to jump in his car, drive through eight states, plunge into the water, and pull the men up to the surface himself.

Kohler peppered Bartone with questions, but he couldn't get the words — or the image of his friends trapped underwater — out of his mind. Stuck on the wreck.

The Spiegel Grove is a behemoth, 510 feet long — that's almost two football fields — and 84 feet wide. She has ten decks (not including the bridge), making her about 90 feet from bottom to top. The ship was named for the Ohio estate of nineteenth President Rutherford Hayes and boasts a similarly obscure history.

Commissioned by the navy in 1956 to ferry troops and amphibious craft to hot spots across the globe, the Spiegel Grove never saw combat. But she logged plenty of sea time, especially in the Caribbean; she was often deployed as an emergency vessel in the Sixties and Seventies when NASA spacecraft re-entered the Earth's atmosphere.

Crew members recall her fondly; they remember laid-back swim calls in the mid-Atlantic, when sailors took a dip — and sharpshooters with M16s stood on deck, ready to pick off sharks. She was nicknamed the "Spiegel Beagle" and sailors painted a likeness of Snoopy, the Peanuts beagle, on the deck.

Everyone aboard remembered her size.

"If you wanted to cover that entire ship by walking, it would take, I don't know, eight hours," says former Navy man Jim Wyatt of High Springs, Florida. He served aboard for three years, from 1983 to 1986. He spent most of the first year getting lost. "It wasn't unusual for people to get disoriented," he comments.

The Spiegel Grove was decommissioned in 1989 and sent to the James River, near Fort Eustis, Virginia. She sat alongside 100 other dormant ships for ten years awaiting the scrap heap. That little cluster of sad ships even had a name: the Mothball Fleet.

The Spiegel Grove, however, was destined for a Cinderella-like afterlife. Her Prince Charming was actually six guys in a bar in Key Largo: Joe Clark, Dick Drake, Stephen Frink, Bill Harrigan, Doc Schweinler, and Spencer Slate — all local divers. One steamy July night in 1994 they were drinking a cold one, make that several cold ones, in a now-closed bar near a dive shop on U.S. 1. Wouldn't it be cool, they mused aloud, if we could rescue a ship from the Mothball Fleet and turn it into a shipwreck for divers?

The idea wasn't new. The Key Largo Chamber of Commerce had already sunk two Coast Guard ships, the Duane and the Bibb, and there was money left over from those projects.

Two months after that informal bar meeting, Harrigan, a former manager at the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, visited Virginia and picked out the Spiegel Grove. He came back and told his friends: If all went as planned, the 6880-ton ship would be the largest planned reef in the U.S.

They knew it would be popular. Wreck diving — once the province of the hardened risk-taker — was becoming more popular worldwide as scuba equipment allowed for swimmers to stay underwater longer. Divers made pilgrimages to Nantucket, where the Andrea Doria lay two hours from shore in 200-plus feet of water, and to New Jersey, home to many of the nation's sunken treasures. It was still a dangerous sport — divers could get tangled in lines or lost inside wrecks — but with an intentionally sunken ship, the risks were manageable. In 2004, 22 people died wreck diving; some snagged on debris. Others experienced heart attacks or equipment malfunctions.

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