Rapture of the Deep
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
As with karate, Scott with his dark brown hair, brown eyes, and muscular build gravitated toward teaching. On weekends he would take students to Dutch Springs, a freshwater lake in nearby Pennsylvania, to dive. In 1992 he helped cofound Treasure Cove, a dive shop in Westfield, a town of 30,000 just 25 minutes southwest of New York City. The small store catered to wealthy weekend warriors who had enough money to spend on $5000 regulators. Scott when he wasn't diving, teaching, or taking his 140-pound English mastiff, Lucy, to the dog park on Sundays would spend his free time behind the counter, selling equipment or filling tanks.
One day he came home from the shop and rushed up to Marianne. "Guess who I met today?" he said breathlessly. "Richie Kohler."
Kohler, who worked as a glass salesman by day, was already a legend at the time, known for diving dangerous wrecks in his spare time. He was also on the verge of discovering a previously unknown German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. Soon the two were friends. Kohler, a lifelong diver, was impressed with Scott's love of the sport, his patience with students, and his levelheadedness.
"I would trust my children to be trained by Scott Stanley," Kohler says. "Scott was a very good diver. He was an excellent instructor. Competent. Thorough. He knew his limits. He didn't have a macho attitude." The two went on occasional expeditions together, setting anchor lines and diving wrecks.
Scott also made dozens of other dive friends at Treasure Cove. Jonathan Walsweer was a 38-year-old financial analyst who had been diving since he was a boy. Scott and Walsweer often took dive trips with their wives to Mexico and other Caribbean locales.
Marianne said that Scott loved to read up on wrecks he had amassed a small library of dive volumes in the basement of their 100-year-old colonial home and was excited about the Spiegel Grove. He first dove the wreck in 2002 and loved it so much that he brought David back the next year.
Another dive buddy was a local judge and lawyer named Howard Spialter. Like Scott, Spialter was a passionate diver and instructor. Though Spialter was three years younger, he looked a bit older with his shaggy beard and wire-rimmed glasses. Spialter who declined to speak with New Times despite two phone calls and a letter sent to his home also liked wrecks and cave diving and occasionally took chances, according to two men who called themselves acquaintances of Spialter but declined to give their names.
Scott and Spialter were best friends, and they dove together often, making pilgrimages to the Andrea Doria and the Spiegel Grove. They were very different outings, one in cold, dark water, the other in warm turquoise seas. Spialter would realize this during one South Florida dive in 2006, according to one of the two unnamed sources, who recounted the tale on scubaboard.com. Spialter penetrated the Spiegel Grove with a buddy and found himself inside the pump room, deep in the ship's bowels. He had scattered strobe lights around the ship like a trail of breadcrumbs so he could find his way out.
When he reached the room, Spialter was completely relaxed in the pitch black, one unnamed friend says. But then he became anxious. He was worried about running out of air and was having a bit of difficulty finding a way out. He described the water as being "like black pea soup."
Spialter hadn't run a line a reel of thick rope that allows divers to follow it to safety outside the wreck into the pump room, the friend continues. So he had to feel his way out. Finally, though, the judge escaped with barely enough air in his tank to survive, the friend says. "I was stunned when I heard the story," adds the friend. "I asked him why he hadn't run a line.
"He just kind of shrugged. There was no excuse given."
At the beginning of 2007 Scott Stanley, Howard Spialter, Jonathan Walsweer, and another friend from the Westfield dive shop 51-year-old Kevin Coughlin decided make a spring pilgrimage to the warm waters of Key Largo. Scott's 23-year-old-son, Dave, was scheduled to go, but changed plans at the last minute.
Walsweer, who had also visited the Spiegel Grove before, had a wife and two little boys. He had been diving since he was eight years old and was an instructor. Coughlin's story was a little different: He was a single real estate investor. He had battled alcoholism and homelessness and blossomed into a success story. He had logged 300 dives around the world. Not as many as Scott, perhaps, but a respectable number nonetheless.
On March 14 the four arrived in South Florida. Scott called Marianne when their plane touched down in Miami; he wanted her to know that he was safe.
They had booked rooms at the Key Largo Suites Hotel, a two-story, beige stucco building that overlooks a marina. They didn't make much of an impression checking in; the manager was so busy that he never laid eyes on them. The four were just more divers who had come south for some fun.
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 Do took 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."
The next day they once again boarded the Scuba Do early 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.
It was just after 10:00 a.m. Soon other divers on boats and back at the Key Largo docks heard the urgent call on their marine radios: three missing divers aboard the Spiegel Grove.
At 10:15 the Coast Guard, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, and the Key Largo Fire Department all readied their boats. Five minutes later two divers from another boat surfaced with an unconscious man. It turned out to be Kevin Coughlin. The Coast Guard rushed him to shore, where an ambulance awaited. Coughlin was dead by the time he reached the doors of Mariner's Hospital, but doctors didn't make the official pronouncement until 11:50 a.m.
Rob Bleser the fire department captain and Spiegel Grove project manager was one of the many who heard the emergency call. He rallied two of his wreck-certified dive team members. At around noon, he piloted the fire department's rescue boat out to the wreck. The volunteer divers returned with bad news: Scott Stanley and Jonathan Walsweer were dead. The pair was 134 feet down, inside the ship's pump room, with the air regulators out of their mouths and their tanks empty.
Even after hearing Spialter's emotional retelling of the dive, no one could figure out what had happened.
The bodies were recovered the next day. The medical examiner termed the official cause of death as drowning.
Sheriff's department Captain Mark Coleman says the men did several things wrong: They didn't file a dive plan with their dive charter captain, they didn't use their own safety line, and they went into a part of the ship that was off limits.
But wreck divers are known for breaking the rules; Coleman admitted that prior to that fateful day in March, some divers not Stanley's group had cut the chains and pried open hatches to penetrate the wreck. It wasn't the job of the sheriff's office, or the Coast Guard, or anyone, really, to check on the wreck every day. And after all, divers including Spialter, Scott Stanley, Walsweer, and Coughlin sign waivers agreeing not to penetrate too deep into wrecks. "These men were well beyond where any sport diver should go," says Coleman. "They made a lot of mistakes."
Spialter didn't speak with any media after the tragedy. Someone who answered his telephone in New Jersey said that he "would never be able to talk" about the tragedy.
However three days after his friends died, someone claiming to be him posted some comments online in a news forum, topix.com, about the accident.
"I ask that everyone respect the memories of my dear friends and not speculate as to what happened. Planes crash, cars crash, skydivers occasionally are not successful, and the dive community is not immune to accidents. Please be respectful and accept that accidents happen. I continue to live with this tragedy. Please do not compound it,"he wrote.
Spialter or someone posing as him also responded on topix.com to the criticisms posted on several other online dive boards, including scubaboard.com and decostop.com. On sites read by tens of thousands of people, divers had attacked the four friends for being careless.
A man named Jim H., from Dayton, Ohio, said that "what went wrong was their ego," and called them "stupid" for going into the Spiegel Grove without proper equipment or training.
Spialter protested that all four were incredibly advanced divers. "You have fallen into the trap of speaking without knowing," he wrote to Jim H. "As one certified cave diver to another, don't judge unknowingly. You prove who is lacking. Perhaps you were looking in the mirror when referring to öjust plain stupid.' If you really want to dive, come with me to dive the North Atlantic off NJ on our numerous wrecks. I'll even guide you on the boat on which I crew during the summer (if you have the integrity). YOU DO A DISSERVICE TO THE DIVE COMMUNITY WITH PIG HEADED UNKNOWING STATEMENTS. May the memories of my buddies be for a blessing for us all."
Richie Kohler refuses to speculate on how his friends died. "I could sit here all day and paint you a thousand horrifying situations that could have happened in that cramped compartment," he says.
Marianne Stanley believes the men had a dive plan, pointing to the placement of emergency tanks and strobe lights as evidence. "Scott was such a cautious diver," she says, adding that she spoke with Spialter in the days after the tragedy. When asked her opinion on how it all unfolded, Marianne refuses to give details and says the truth will remain a mystery. "I really can't say," she explains. "It's too personal. It involves all four divers."
At Scott's funeral hundreds of people told stories about how he had taught them to dive safely, Marianne explains. His last student, she said, was an eleven-year-old boy certified in February.
Regina Walsweer insists that the men weren't risk-takers. "They knew the boat," she says. "They weren't crazy divers."
She has a theory that Coughlin possibly had trouble with his air tank, which caused Walsweer and Scott Stanley to stay behind to help. She had heard that on the Thursday dive, Kevin had been low on air when he ascended.
Mark Cianculli, the owner of Scuba Do, classifies the tragedy as "diver error." He won't answer any questions about the tragedy or offer opinions. "I'm just waiting for this all to settle down and for people to forget about it," he adds.
It is possible that at least one of the three men panicked as he ran low on air, which caused the others to do the same. It is also possible that they were overconfident in their skills and when confronted with a dark, confined space while running low on oxygen, their brains foggy they made bad choices, like trying to share air.
There's also another scenario: Maybe one, or more, of the guys were "narc-ed" a term divers use to describe an altered state of consciousness, similar to being drunk, at depths of 100 feet or more. The technical name is narcosis; famed underwater explorer Jacques Cousteau called it "rapture of the deep." Sometimes it causes divers to behave illogically; in other people, it inspires anxiety. Scientists aren't really sure what causes the state, but they think it's due to the high nitrogen pressure on the nerve transmissions.
Still, all of the men were aware of the risks. That's why the deaths of Scott Stanley, Walsweer, and Coughlin rocked the scuba world. It's not that they were the first to die on the Spiegel Grove three other people had perished in separate incidents over the years but most diving accidents in the Keys were due to inexperience or heart attacks. (There have been eighteen diving deaths, including those of snorkelers, since this past July.)
Kohler, and the many in Key Largo who depend on diving as their livelihood, insist that the Spiegel Grove is a safe dive if the rules are followed. It was only closed to diving for two days after the tragedy, long enough for the bodies to be recovered. Kohler, who dove the wreck with a camera crew in 2006, long before the tragedy, is set to release an online documentary of the Spiegel Grove later this year.
These days online scuba forums have stopped speculating on what befell the four New Jersey men. Instead divers around the world are now discussing how to obtain navy ship blueprints that will show them how to swim to the now-infamous pump room.
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