Book Review: Trapped Under the Sea by Neil Swidey
As the cover says, it’s a story about “One engineering marvel, five men, and a disaster ten miles into the darkness.” That darkness being the end of the Deer Island sewage treatment plant outflow tunnel, 420 feet below the bottom of Boston Harbor.
This book caught my attention immediately because it’s a local story. I live in the Boston area. Strangely, I’d never heard about this accident, which happened back in 1999. In reading the book, it seems to have received some press, but it also happened shortly after JFK Jr.’s plane went down off Martha’s Vineyard. The book mentions that the plane crash dominated the media at that time, so it’s likely the tunnel accident didn’t make it into the headlines as much and that’s why I missed it.
In any event, this felt like a story about something taking place in my own backyard, so I had to read it. I was not disappointed.
TRAPPED UNDER THE SEA is extremely thorough in its coverage of the tunnel event. The theme throughout seems to be one of “ordinary heroes” and what can happen when the focus on the bottom line overshadows concern for human lives.
The author covers not only the tragedy itself, but all the little pieces that lead up to it. The missed opportunities to avoid it, the thought process behind the actions that ultimately caused it, and the people both inside and outside the tunnel that were affected by it.
As the author states in the Epilogue “Whenever a worker dies, there is a natural inclination to hunt for a huge, single failure that can be blamed. In reality, a worker’s death is usually caused by a series of small, bad decisions made by many individuals, none of which, on its own, would have been enough to produce a fatality. Disaster only strikes when all the holes in the Swiss cheese line up.” TRAPPED UNDER THE SEA details every single one of those holes and shows exactly how they lined up.
The early chapters focus on the men involved, from all sides: project managers, construction bigwigs, and the divers. It’s a large cast, but you come to know each person in depth, their family life, their personalities, their hopes, their dreams. So much so that you become attached to them in a way. It causes you to be emotionally involved in the situation yourself and feel like you’re there with them. Knowing it won’t end well tugs at your heartstrings as the chapters progress. When the ending comes, it’s heartbreaking. To see how one small decision anywhere in the chain of events could have changed everything makes what happened even more tragic.
The writing in this book is superb. I know nothing about underwater construction or the specialized diving required to do it, and I have no experience with commercial diving operations or how construction projects as large as the Deer Island sewage tunnel are run. Yet, I was able to follow everything happening in the book easily and without confusion. The author’s style is engaging and informative. He explains things in an uncomplicated manner, educating you along the way and bringing you closer to the people involved in the story. They aren’t just names on the page. They feel real. And because of that, you can’t help but feel sympathy and outrage as you read how this horrible tragedy came to be.
In addition to clear descriptions for the uninitiated, the book also includes a couple diagrams that give you an idea of the scale of the project, as well as help you visualize exactly what these divers were up against.
The latter third of the book is about the aftermath of the event. The quest for justice is almost as harrowing as the tragedy itself. I truly appreciated the Epilogue and followup at the end that lets you know where everyone is today, because when you get to the last page, you’re so affected by what happened, you want to know if they’re okay.
An enthusiastic 5 stars all around for TRAPPED UNDER THE SEA. Highly recommended, even if you aren’t from the Boston area.
(FTC Disclaimer: I received this book for free from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.)