NYE: Car Plunges into Canal

Our New Year’s Eve was one of extremes.

At midnight, we rang in 2014 watching the Statue of Liberty fireworks from the bridge of the 210-foot yacht, Hornblower Infinity (we’d been asked to assist with docking).

A few hours later, we were cutting across the Hudson in our RHIB returning to Liberty Landing when we heard the Coast Guard call: vehicle submerged in the Morris Canal. Our marina.

Bjoern put down the throttle. My mind raced: What could we do if we’re first on scene? Would we be able to break a window? Jump in and pull someone out?

What if we saw a face and hands banging at the glass as the car filled up and went under?

Since Bjoern’s a trained emergency responder I knew he’d figure out the logistics. But when we arrived on scene about three minutes later, there was no car — not even bubbles. Yet there were plenty of eyewitnesses and Jersey City police officers standing on a nearby dock, pointing to a spot on the water where they saw the car go down.

An eyewitness said she thought she saw three people sinking in the maroon Altima.

We searched the surface with flashlights for any signs of disturbance, and to allow potential escapees to know which way was up. We did that for about five minutes before the Jersey City Fire Boat arrived from the other end of the marina. They seemed to have no divers on board and started feeling around for the submerged car with boat hooks.

Bjoern thought that was inadequate and put out a call on the radio for anyone with divers in the area to get to Morris Canal. We were relieved to see the NYPD Harbor Unit and Scuba Team arrive moments later.

Since our RHIB enabled the quickest access to the site, two divers jumped aboard and we ferried them to the spot.

The air temperature was 24 degrees Fahrenheit, the water about 49 degrees, but this elite team of responders jumped right in. You could hear the shivering in their voices over the diver-to-surface radio. They “mowed the lawn” searching for the car, keeping a strategic back-and-forth pattern in less than an arm’s length of visibility.

With no luck on the first round of passes and running low on air, two relief divers were sent in. They held the same pattern and finally located the car, which had drifted with the current about thirty feet away from where it plunged into the canal.

One diver surfaced with a jacket. The other came up with a victim, and swam him to the dock. Even though it had been more than an hour, the NYPD was optimistically treating it as a search and rescue operation. Several factors were in the victim’s favor: he was young, the water was cold. People had been revived in less forgiving circumstances.

As EMS attended to the victim, two more divers splashed. The eyewitnesses said there were three people in the car; only one was accounted for. They scoured every inch for the others, but found no one.

To be certain, the officers interviewed the eyewitnesses on the dock once more, who now said it was possible only one person was involved in the accident after all.

NYPD decided the raising of the vehicle should be conducted in daylight, when the Army Corps of Engineers could get to the scene. They thanked us for use of our boat, and we thanked them for their impressive service.

We got back to our slip at about 6:15 am, and drove home as the sun was rising. News reports told us that our victim didn’t make it. He was only 22.

I’m still processing the contrasts of that night: how it’s possible, in one moment, to feel that you’re exactly where you’re meant to be – and then in just a few short hours, you’re reminded that sometimes you will be just minutes too late.

Diving the Rum Runner

We cast off at 7:30 a.m. with a promising NOAA marine forecast. Two foot seas and less than ten knots of wind – pretty much ideal conditions to hit a wreck further out.

I decided to shoot for the Lizzie D, a prohibition rum runner that sank in 1922 laden with crates of illegal whisky. Sitting upright in the sand at about 80 feet, she’d make a good first Northeast wreck dive for Joe’s student Alison.

The twenty-two nautical mile boat ride from Manhattan took just over an hour and a set of good numbers put us directly on top of the wreck. The sonar signature confirmed the location and we dropped a mushroom anchor with 100 feet of line and a buoy to mark the position.

Dive-master Joel splashed and descended the anchor line. He gave three good tugs to signal a successful tie-in and we moored the boat to the buoy and activated the drift alarm on the chart plotter.

The visibility looked promising and after a dive-site briefing Joe, Alison and Gary geared up and back-rolled over the gunnel. They planned to do an orientation dive on the wreck and go through some deep water drills.

I kept anchor watch, traced bubbles, and spotted a shark cruising by on the surface. After forty minutes Joel came up the  line with an almost intact rum bottle in hand. Fifteen minutes later the rest of the crew surfaced – all stoked by visibility and condition of the wreck.

During their ninety minute surface interval I jumped in and cleaned the bottom of the boat. The weather seemed to be holding out nicely so the divers swapped tanks and Gary studied the 2012 fishing guidelines aka ‘dinner menu’ while prepping his spear gun.

This time Joe, Alison and Gary descended first while Joel and I went over the un-tie procedure. He then splashed twenty minutes into their dive.

Alison surfaced with two half bottles – not bad for her first time diving this wreck, Gary with two fish, and Joe happy to have certified two more students in specialty courses.

Once they were aboard I started the engine and we cast off the mooring line to give it slack. Joel untied from the wreck and sent the anchor to the surface with a lift-bag, starting a floating decompression under his surface marker.

By now the wind had picked up, the seas were building and white caps started showing. A sign to get underway and head back to port.  As we got within cell phone range I checked the radar and saw some rain over New York Harbor. Only green colors – no yellow or red. That changed by the time we were off the Staten Island coast. Rain set in and soon turned into hail dropping visibility to a mere twenty feet. Running around the weather system wasn’t an option, as we were bound by the Brooklyn shore to our east and New Jersey to the west. The sky looked threatening and though we were only five minutes away from safe harbor I did not want to run the boat through this storm cell so I turned about and headed back towards the Verrazano Bridge – to not be the tallest object on the water.

The next fifteen minutes were truly spectacular! A lightning show better than the Macy’s fireworks. Fog horns from freighters sounded through the punishing rain and our gear got a thorough fresh water wash-down.

As quickly as the sky turned dark, it became light again and we crossed New York Harbor making it back to the dock within fifteen minutes.

It was a great day of diving and a reminder of how fast these thunderstorms can pop up. I’m looking forward to going back out to dive the U.S.S. Turner later this month, as well as to investigate some new sonar targets.