Rapture of the Deep

A voyage into the murky underworld off Key Largo turns deadly

In the early morning hours of Thursday, March 15, the four drove a half-mile in the cool, dry spring weather to the dock where the Scuba Do, a 34-foot custom dive boat, awaited. It was white with blue lettering; the name was painted on the bottom so divers could spot it. The boat offered good prices — $70 for a two-tank trip — an onboard shower, and a diver-friendly wooden deck on the back, which made it easy for gear-laden divers.

That Thursday morning the Scuba Dotook about an hour to reach the wreck and docked at a mooring ball attached to the ship. The men made two dives that day, descending to 142 feet below sea level. On at least one of them, the men entered the Spiegel Grove's bow, which is nestled below the sandy sea surface.

That night Walsweer called his wife, Regina. He said that he was having a good time, but didn't elaborate. Regina didn't press him for details of his day; her husband went on so many dive trips that it was as routine as a jaunt to the grocery store. "I updated him on what the kids were doing," she says. "I don't even think I asked about the trip. I never worried about him, especially when he was with Scott."

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

The next day they once again boarded the Scuba Doearly and headed for the wreck. They were each armed with two compressed, 80-cubic-foot air tanks filled with Nitrox — a mixture of 28 percent oxygen and 72 percent nitrogen, which would allow them to go deeper and stay longer. The 74-degree water was a deep sapphire blue, a bit choppy because the winds were blowing at fifteen knots. Plunging in, the men followed the descent line that connected to the white buoy and the Spiegel Grove.

Before entering the ship at its mid-point on the port side, each diver attached one of his air tanks to the outside of the ship, just in case it was needed for the long ascent to the Scuba Do. The four knew they must rise slowly to avoid the dreaded "bends," or decompression sickness.

Upon entering the ship, the men placed strobe lights at the entrance, then swam in. They didn't use the nylon lines — called dive reels — that they had brought with them. Instead they scattered strobe lights as they went.

Then they swam inside, using their flashlights as a guide. They squeezed into tight corridors and down a 40-foot crawl space — which had been used by sailors to descend into the pump room and other spaces in the ship's belly. They glided past some 70 feet of rusting steel to the starboard side.

They floated down colorless corridors, gazing at walls pockmarked with rust spots that glowed a flat grey. A few fish floated past them on some of the higher decks — a 600-pound grouper was rumored to have taken up residence near the bridge — but as the men descended into the ship's belly, the interior was devoid of life, save for the translucent plankton that danced in the flashlight beams.

At some point, they wedged through a hatch the size of a 27-inch TV, and found themselves in the pump room — the place where Spialter had allegedly panicked just months before. Again it was pitch black, except for the flashlights slicing through the dark water. They were at 140 feet below sea level, where light and colors had been stripped away, leaving only a stark landscape of water and metal.

It was around 9:45 a.m., about fifteen minutes into the dive. Since the men were only using 80-cubic-foot tanks, they knew they only had about twenty minutes of oxygen before they would need to emerge, switch to the back-up tanks, and ascend.

According to three notes that Spialter later posted on a Website, Scott Stanley, Walsweer, and Coughlin swam down a passage, and he lost sight of them for a few seconds. Then, after what seemed like an eternity, the three swam back into the pump room, which seemed crowded. The motion of their flippers kicked up the fine, sandy silt. Visibility evaporated.

Spialter would later tell police that he realized he was running low on air. He needed to get 70 feet across the ship and then ascend some 40 feet before reaching the back-up tanks. The judge felt around and found the escape hatch. He swam through, and waited for the others.

No one followed, so Spialter returned to the opening. Then, suddenly, he saw a gloved hand reach toward him. He thought it was Scott. He grabbed the hand and tugged. Scott pulled away.

Spialter waited there, hoping his friends would emerge. Then he waited some more. Finally, when he couldn't wait any longer because of low oxygen, he turned and left. It likely took him a couple of minutes to reach the back-up tanks. Once outside the ship he hesitated again. Should he try to take the extra tanks back to his friends? What if he missed seeing them along the way, and they reached the outside of the wreck, low on air, then discovered the bottles weren't there?

He decided to return to the surface and tell the boat captain that his friends were in trouble. Spialter shot up much faster than was prudent — without decompressing. He yelled that his three buddies were lost inside the ship, then descended into the water again to decompress.

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