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Depth Charge

River diver Dennis Georges has one of the most dangerous jobs going -- and loves it


Below the MacArthur Bridge, the new johnboat, a 24-footer, slips from its trailer and into the turbid Mississippi. After a few adjustments to the twin 70- horsepower Johnson outboards, the crew of three heads out into the river. Destination: the U.S. Coast Guard dock under construction at the foot of Arsenal Street. It is early morning, mid-March. On the Missouri shore, a plume of smoke rises from a ramshackle shelter, hobos boiling water for coffee or just trying to warm their bones. A lone figure waves halfheartedly. "You see these guys out here year 'round," says Dennis Georges, barely audible over the drone of the outboards as he stands at the stern, steering the craft. "Camping out. In the extreme."

The problem awaiting the crew is a marine structure called a dolphin, a cluster of steel pilings tied together to assist barge mooring. From an onshore crane, the pilings are driven into the riverbed, but the last one, as luck would have it, has hit something. KCI Construction, the company overseeing the job, has called troubleshooter Georges to the site to determine just what it is they're hitting.

They tie the johnboat to an 18-inch piling. After consulting with the foreman, Georges readies to get wet. He strips off his clothes and boots, begins to don the layers that will protect against the chill of 39-degree water: a red thermal union suit, a second union suit and Gore-Tex diving underwear, followed by a "dry suit" (this keeps the diver completely dry and has built-in buoyancy control). Ray Hawkins, a topside helper known as a tender, finishes the dressing-out, hooks a harness to Georges' torso, attaches a weight belt (80 pounds, to offset the 2- to 3-knot current), screws on Georges' 40-pound river helmet and secures the umbilical line. Down Georges goes, enveloped in an inky-black world so dark he can't see the inside of his helmet.

Sinking down into darkness, he does not lapse into some meditative state or contemplate the wonders of nature. Quite the opposite, he keeps his mind on the work ahead. People ask him what it is like down there, how he would describe the sensation, the experience of a river dive -- as if it were a sort of lark. Georges insists he doesn't "even think about stuff like that. You keep focused on the reason you're there, and, believe me, it's not for 'the experience.' A sport diver's there for the experience; a working diver's there to get the job done."

Once on the bottom, 27 feet down, Georges crawls like a crustacean to the problem area. Were he to stand up, the current would drag him off. He locates the piling by touch, feels downward to the base, checks around for several minutes and then calls to the tender, "Bring me up." Hawkins and Tom Hook, the other tender, heave on the umbilical line, and before long Georges emerges, fresh with the news: The piling is "just catching" the rim of another piling, a remnant of a previous dock that once occupied this stretch of water. "Move your piling an inch and you'll miss it," he tells the KCI foreman. Can't do that, says the foreman, citing prohibitive job specs, but that's all right -- you've done your job, thanks.

Dennis Georges is a hard-hat diver, a construction worker whose job site happens to be the murky depths of the Midwest's rivers. Most days, when the topside world is burning daylight in office cubicles, Georges is cutting steel or pouring concrete in a 4-knot current. His River Diving & Salvage Inc., in South County, charges $750 for an eight-hour day inspecting piers and docks, performing hull maintenance, raising sunken barges. It's a job most of us could not begin to fathom.

Right now, work is abundant, says Georges, who, at 46, has been a river diver for half his life. During one two-week stint, Georges and crew raised a dock barge in Caruthersville, Mo.; installed a piping system to chemically remove pesky zebra mussels obstructing the intake pipes of a molasses factory on the upper Mississippi; and raised a dry dock for Mike's Inc. in Wood River, Ill. (the dock became waterlogged after a worker forgot to put drain caps on). These feats, accomplished through a combination of applied physics, jury-rigging and common sense, do not always involve going into the drink. Not long ago, the crew went into an old mine in Farmington, Mo. The mission: Cut through some 12-inch pipe so the Army Corps of Engineers could pump concrete grout through, closing off the mine shaft. "There was only a foot of water in the mine," Georges explains, "but the air may have been bad, so they wanted us with our suits."

The suit. Because strong current makes air tanks impractical, river divers aren't "tube suckers" -- nor, judging by their critical tone, do they care to be. They use surface-supplied air, pumped by generator into a watertight diving suit and helmet that look like something out of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but are, in fact, the envy of a latter-day Captain Nemo. Attached to the suit is an air-supply line, a communication (radio) line, a rope-safety line and a pneumofathometer line, which measures the depth of the diver. These lines are all intertwined in an umbilical cord connecting diver to boat. Like all hard-hat divers, Georges puts total trust in the ever-vigilant tenders to manage his lifeline. The tender monitors air pressure and responds to the diver's instructions: "Take me up a foot" or "Make it cold," meaning, "Cut power to the welder."

During Georges' inspection of the Coast Guard dolphin, his radio contact with the boat was breaking up. Had Georges issued a "mayday," no one would have heard. He shrugs off the potential peril with an offhand observation: "You work in a hostile environment; it's hard on wiring." Yet, when radio communications are lost, diver and tenders fall back on a method likely used in an age when Pericles gazed upon the fair Aegean: Two pulls means "Give me slack." Three pulls: "Take up my slack." Four pulls: "Get me the hell out of here."

Most certainly the job can be hazardous in the extreme, right up there with kamikaze pilot on the actuarial tables. OK, that's a slight exaggeration, but over the span of 23 years there have been some close calls. Take, for example, a cofferdam in New Orleans damaged when a barge hit it. "It was one big mess of tangled steel," says Georges, brown eyes crinkling in a grin. "I was cuttin' on it and just didn't feel comfortable with it. So I crawled out from under it, and just after I did it collapsed."

Then there's the occasional explosion, a guaranteed shocker every time. It's a natural phenomenon: When a barge filled with corn or soybean sinks, the sodden grain, over time, produces methane gas, quite volatile in a sealed tank. If the diver needs to burn a hole in the hull to insert a pump hose and doesn't pick the right spot to weld ... well, one of Georges' pals ("Billy made the mistake of tying himself to his work," he says) perished in such an accident.

"You go to the highest point of the tank," says Georges, to "cut vent holes so the collected gases can escape." Even with this precaution, he admits, he's "been blown up three times. Each time it just blew me away from the work. Didn't hurt, really -- just scared the hell out of me. Your survival is your degree of common sense," he adds. "For every dive, no matter how simple, you stake it out, make a plan. When somebody gets hurt, usually it's something that was overlooked or taken for granted."

Georges recalls a 1993 job on the Missouri River in which a young diver died needlessly: "There was an outfit out of Florida hiring kids out of diving school at $300 a week. Well, that school must have skipped the lesson on Midwest rivers -- they didn't have the right equipment or the experience to work on the Missouri. I talked with a pilot on the job who said the kid didn't even have to get into the water to get this line around a pipe. He could've used a hook. Now, an experienced diver's not going to get into the water if he doesn't have to. The kid was wearing a mask instead of a helmet, and no one was on his radio. He got tangled up and drowned in 4 feet of water."

Georges was certified as a diver while visiting his brother in Hawaii. "I'd planned on staying two weeks," he says. "Ended up staying two years. I was in the water more than on land." Back in St. Louis, he worked construction until one day he was laid off. He decided to enroll in a commercial-diving school in San Francisco, the first step toward becoming what he'd later call "an overglorified underwater ditch digger." The first job under the banner of his own company was to raise an old showboat on Laclede's Landing. "That was summer '78," he says huskily, in the broad tones of a Midwestern drawl. "The Cotton Blossom was docked where McDonald's now is. One day it up and sank. The owner was bankrupt, leaving the city to underwrite the salvage. They brought a lift rig up from Memphis, and down we went."

Hard-hat divers are a small fraternity. Small wonder, for it takes big cojones to muck around on the bottoms of these rivers contending with myriad hazards ranging from alligator-snapper lairs to runaway barges to submerged logs drifting along like stealth weapons. Get hit by one of those and it's like being hit by a car. Then there's the sporadic nature of the employment. The phone rings, you go. It could be Keokuk or Cape Girardeau; could be a few days or a few weeks. You don't know till you get there. You've got a long-postponed dentist appointment? Sorry, you just pack your bags and go. "I've had a hard time keeping good tenders," Georges says. "They want to quit -- I understand. It's hard, especially if a guy's got a family."

As a neophyte, Georges worked with two of the best divers in the Midwest, if not the country: Okie Moore and Paul Laws. Though Laws has gone on to greater reward, Moore still dives after 40 years, mostly outside the metro area. "They knew what they were doing. When you called them, they got the job done," says Jim "Goat" Patterson, owner of Paragon Marine Service, a towboat fleeting operation at the foot of Chouteau Avenue.

Patterson, who claims to have given Georges his first jobs, recalls,"Denny didn't know what the hell he was doing at first." He laughs about the incident of the moving logs. "Denny radioed, 'Get me up, get me up!' I got him up, and he said he was standing on some logs and they started moving. Well, those 'logs,' I'm pretty sure, were huge catfish. Some of those channel cats, 'specially around the dams where we were, get up around 100 pounds. They get that big and old, they just lie there on the bottom -- like logs."

Though Georges offers a full marine hard-hat resume (which does not include snagging corpses, "floaters," out of the river), raising sunken barges, docks and even riverboat casinos seems to be his specialty. But if a barge weighs 300 tons empty and up to 1,500 tons loaded with cargo, how does one diver get something so massive off the riverbed? "You jury-rig," he says. "You adapt to your conditions. You make do with what you have. You get out there and it's night or a holiday weekend, you can't just run to the hardware store."

You start by pumping out tanks, but to do that you first have to seal up any breaches in the hull. And like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, the plug can be anything that's handy: "We once stuffed a ham in the hole to plug it up," says Georges. Patterson merrily recalls "going to the Salvation Army and finding a featherbed mattress that was just the right size for stuffing this particular hole." Once the hole is plugged, you can pump the water out. "Normally," says Georges, "you get two tanks pumped out and one end will pop up. Sometimes you can raise a several-hundred-ton barge with a 150-pound pump."

To the hard-hat diver, the sight of a sunken barge breaching like a whale must be something like a fireworks display. There's a good deal of jubilation. However, that moment can be -- and often is -- accomplished only after several false starts. When plans A through E go awry, the crew really has to get creative. "The first job I had Denny on," says Patterson, "we were actually pumping water into empty barges. Once they sank, we'd wire them to the sunken one, then pump the water out again, and that lifts the stubborn SOB below."

The hard-hat diver's got to be fearless or half-crazy. Down under, it's nothing like your translucent Lake of the Ozarks. The moment the diver hits the river, things are pitch-dark, a soup of silt and sediment, the turbid result of so much erosion. And no carry-along lamp is going to illuminate the diver's labors. "It doesn't do any good," says Georges, "'cause you can be down there burning buoys, wearing black lenses, and you can't even see the arc from the welding rod."

So how does a "blind" diver get oriented on the bottom of the Big Muddy? Georges makes it sound easy enough: "Well, a barge, for instance, is 195 feet long, 35 feet wide, with a 14-foot hull on it. Once you get on it, it's like closing your eyes and walking up to your car -- you're going to know where you are." He strokes his red-gray beard. "Visibility really doesn't hamper us. The biggest enemy is current. What may take five minutes to do in dead water may take a week to do in current."

Georges is no stranger to barked shins and bruised ribs, submarine-style, but so far, so good. "You routinely encounter big rocks and large objects," he offers. "The ones that start moving on you are the ones you've got to worry about."

Despite the dangers, it's a job he wouldn't trade. "Working on the river is my escape, my high," he says. "Conditions are constantly changing. Two identical barges could sink in the same spot, but factor in cargoes, river stages, weather, the salvage will be completely different. That's the challenge."

He pauses, clutches at a memory. "Funny thing is, I'm scared to death of heights. One day, working on the JB Bridge, I'm watching this ironworker way up top, no safety line, and I think, 'Man, this guy must be crazy.' Then, a bit later, this guy gets on an I-beam, slides all the way down to the deck, right near my diving helmet and equipment, and he looks at my helmet, shakes his head and says, 'No way. You couldn't pay me to do that.'

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