Rapture of the Deep

A voyage into the murky underworld off Key Largo turns deadly

For the next seven years, the Spiegel Grove project plodded along. The entire endeavor was expected to cost $300,000, but red tape, environmental cleanup, and increasing costs nearly killed the plan.

Then in 2001 a local dive shop owner named Rob Bleser was appointed project manager for the Spiegel Grove Reefing Project. Bleser, now 51 years old, is slim for his age. His impeccably trimmed moustache and beard are the color of salt and pepper — with emphasis on the salt. Short and balding, with broad shoulders and a wide chest, he says that his time working on the Spiegel Grove project was the most difficult period in his life. When he signed on, Bleser — also captain of the town's volunteer fire department — knew nothing about sinking ships. "The Spiegel Grove took more out of me than anything else in life," said Bleser.

Bleser's task was to get the ship from Virginia to Key Largo, then submerge it. A charter towing company tugged her south and arrived May 14, 2002. The sinking was scheduled for three days later, slightly southwest of John Pennekamp State Park and about five miles from shore.

The Spiegel Grove initially sunk on her side, but Hurricane Dennis righted the ship
Monroe County Sheriff
The Spiegel Grove initially sunk on her side, but Hurricane Dennis righted the ship
Scott Stanley was an experienced scuba diver from New Jersey
Family of Scott Stanley
Scott Stanley was an experienced scuba diver from New Jersey

Clean-up crews stripped the ship of anything that could potentially harm divers. Hatches that led to narrow passageways in the bowels of the vessel were welded or chained shut — divers were supposed to float through the easier, more cavernous upper three decks. The lower, mazelike part of the ship was off-limits.

When the day for sinking her finally arrived, reporters, politicians, and bureaucrats looked on. The plan was to use explosives to flood the hull and put the ship on the bottom, keel down. After the explosion, the ship sank — four hours ahead of schedule.

But it listed to starboard. Welders scurried to safety onto a nearby ship. The massive boat rolled over, then sank upside down with the bow protruding from the water.

The eight-year, $1.5 million project was at risk of failure. But within a few days, Bleser and the dive community rallied to tug the boat onto its side, where it wouldn't be a navigational hazard. Soon divers flocked to the manmade reef and it became Key Largo's most popular tourist attraction. In 2005 Hurricane Dennis churned the waters so much the ship flopped onto its keel. "It just went, bloop!" Bleser says, flipping his hand over. "It fell right into place."

Of course there were hints of problems ahead. Jim Wyatt, the Navy man who spent three years on the ship when it was above water, dove the wreck. "It took me two dives to find my stateroom," he says. "It was still confusing, even to me."

Sometime in the late Nineties, Scott Stanley, his wife, Marianne, and ten New Jersey friends took a vacation in Bonaire, a Caribbean island about 60 miles north of Venezuela.

Diving, of course, was the main purpose of the trip. Marianne remembers one descent particularly well: During a shallow dive onto a coral reef, she saw — for the first time ever — a seven-foot-long, electric green moray eel. And a yellow puffer fish.

"It had huge eyes," she recalls. "It was so cute, I just wanted Scott to see it." So she turned to look for her husband, expecting him at her side. He was a few yards away, outside the group of divers. His arms were folded across his chest as he studied the group. She motioned to the fish, and he nodded. He pointed at his regulator, then at Marianne — a signal for her to check hers.

When they surfaced, she asked him why he hadn't been near her to see the colorful fish. "I'm watching everyone," he said. "I wanted to make sure everyone was okay."

Comments Marianne, "He was like a mother, even though he was a macho diver. He was always making sure everyone was safe."

Born in the Bronx in 1952, Scott was only four years old when his father died of a heart attack. While his memories of his dad were few, the sudden passing made a strong impression on the boy: He knew that he had to stay in shape to avoid the same fate. "He always felt that he was in a high-risk group," Marianne says.

At age twenty — right around the time that he and Marianne met at a fraternity-sorority gathering at Union College in Schenectady — he discovered martial arts. The sport occupied almost all of his free time for the next fifteen years. Within a year or so, he became a black belt; within three, he was teaching self-defense to others.

To make money, he started a carpet store. Scott and Marianne had two children, a girl named Lauren in 1981 and a boy named David in 1984. Scott also loved big dogs; he and the family adopted German shepherds, greyhounds, and mastiffs.

Unlike some other New Jersey divers, Scott didn't grow up in a wetsuit. In 1988 the family decided to vacation on Grand Cayman. A friend said, "You'll have a better time if you scuba dive." He did, then took lessons at a dive shop back home. He was 36 years old and instantly hooked.

Maybe it was because he was so physically fit, or maybe it was due to his newfound passion for scuba diving. Whatever the case, Scott was a natural. Friends joked that he could stay underwater longer than the fish.

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