Chapter Excerpt




DJ pulled into the driveway, got out of his Ford Bronco, and stepped into what felt like a 1980s music video. Straight ahead was a sun-tanned brunette washing her car while wearing ripped jean shorts and a wet half-shirt. As he trained his eyes on her, DJ could practically hear the thumping hair-metal-band soundtrack playing in his head. Actually, it wasn't all in his head. There was music coming from around the back of the house, where someone had placed a speaker facing out of a first-floor window.

At a picnic table, three attractive women in their early twenties sat in Daisy Duke cutoffs and tight tops, drinking wine coolers and taking in the sun on a late summer afternoon. It was a Friday in August 1993, and DJ, a month shy of his twenty-fourth birthday, had just returned to Massachusetts after more than two years working as an offshore diver in the Gulf of Mexico. During his time away, his mother and younger brother had moved into the upstairs apartment of this two-family house in Waltham, a former mill city west of Boston. They were away on vacation now, so DJ was on his own as he saw the new place for the first time.

A guy around his age approached him, explaining that he lived in the downstairs apartment with his girlfriend, the dark-haired car washer. He invited DJ to grab a beer and join the party that was just getting started. DJ didn't need much convincing and plopped himself down at the picnic table. Given his muscular build, broad smile, and easy conversational skills, he never had much trouble getting noticed by girls, even if he was shier than he let on.

A blonde named Lisa, in between drags on her cigarette, began chatting him up. She had a big laugh to match a big personality. When she told a story, she used her chin, not just her hands, for emphasis. DJ immediately liked her. But his eyes were more drawn to the black-haired woman sitting next to her, who introduced herself as Donna. At least that's what it sounded like to DJ's ears. But when he called her that a few minutes later, she quickly corrected him. It may have sounded like Donna, but her name was actually spelled Dana. To nail the correct pronunciation--DAH-nah--you needed to contort your mouth into a horizontal line as exaggerated as a mailbox slot. Seems like a lot of trouble for a name, DJ thought to himself. But he was so smitten that he didn't mind. Dana had bronze skin, big alluring eyes, and milky teeth that lit up her face when she smiled.

DJ could sense that all the girls were fascinated by his tales of adventure as a diver in the Gulf. He explained how he would get helicoptered way out to sea, onto a giant oil platform the size of a village, so he could do complicated work hundreds of feet underwater. When he'd left Waltham a few years earlier, he'd been just another construction worker hanging out at the bar. Now, having turned his childhood love of the water into a thrilling career, he could claim a deep well of true stories. He knew to prune from his anecdotes all the unglamorous realities of life as an offshore diver--the smelly sleeping quarters and grunt work bordering on hazing--and stick to the exciting stuff.

The party grew as the night wore on. When DJ noticed at one point that Dana had disappeared, he turned his attention to blond-haired Lisa. As night turned to morning, they made their way upstairs to his mother's apartment, where they hooked up. She took off early the next morning, explaining that she had to head out of town.

It didn't take long for day two of the party to get going. Once again Dana was there, and this time DJ didn't let her out of his sight. She told him she was a hairstylist at a high-end Boston salon. She clearly liked to have a good time, but DJ detected something classy and almost exotic about her, with her dark hair falling around her face, hiding one of her eyes.

Late that night, after most of the partyers had cleared out, DJ realized he had lost the key to his mother's apartment. "Don't worry," his downstairs neighbor told him. "You can crash on our couch."

Things heated up between DJ and Dana once they found themselves alone. Eventually they moved from the couch to the dark kitchen and then, for the crescendo, onto the kitchen counter. Suddenly someone flicked on the overhead light. Dana yelled. DJ turned to see a groggy guy who was clearly startled to find he had produced such drama--or more accurately, interrupted it. That was all the motivation DJ needed to head outside, climb up to the second floor, and crawl through a window. He then let Dana in, and they spent the night together with no further interruptions.

Even as the fun began to wind down on Sunday, DJ had something else to look forward to. While he had been working as a nonunion diver in the Gulf, his hope in returning to Boston was to join Local 56, the union for pile drivers and commercial divers. The pay and benefits were a lot better for union divers, which is why DJ worried it would be hard to break into the local. But just a few days earlier, he'd received instructions from the union hall to show up at the beginning of the week for a job rebuilding a ship terminal in South Boston. In one weekend, everything in his personal and professional life seemed to come together.

Late that afternoon Dana made a call. After she hung up, she mentioned her sister would be coming over.

"Oh," DJ said. "You got a sister?"

"Yes," Dana replied, tilting her head in surprise. "You met her."

DJ racked his brain but couldn't recall meeting her sister. Dana insisted. "You know, Lisa--the blond girl."

The words were a punch to his gut. When Lisa arrived, DJ noticed her flinch as she saw Dana caressing his arm. DJ tried the only move he could think of, a last-minute call for clemency in the form of a pained look shot directly at Lisa. With it, he was wordlessly saying: I had no idea.

Lisa, to his eternal relief, returned a forgiving look.

Later, when her sister was out of the room, Lisa said to him, "I see you and Dana are getting along well."

"Yeah," DJ replied nervously. "Listen, Lisa, I didn't know--"

She cut him off. "You don't have to explain anything. I can tell you didn't know we were sisters."

DJ couldn't have been more relieved. He was attracted to Dana in a way he hadn't felt before, though there were few signs of the role she would come to play in his life.

There was, however, more fallout from his fantasy weekend. All that partying caught up with him to the point where, on his first day of his first union job, he showed up to the worksite late. The supervisor told DJ that if he thought he could just waltz in whenever he felt like it, he should save everybody some time and go find another job. "Don't even think about being late again," the guy barked, "unless you've got a really good story."

DJ flashed an impish grin. "Have I got a story for you!" he said, launching into the tale of his weekend with two sisters. By the end, the supervisor was the one grinning. He let DJ's tardiness slide.

DJ didn't get into it then, but his full life story was just as interesting.

As a kid, he'd lived in eleven states in a dozen years. Tennessee, Maryland, Florida, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Georgia, North Carolina, Oklahoma. He was forever the new kid, the outsider who would never be around long enough to make real friends. In every new town, he carried an unfamiliar accent with inflections from the last stop, setting him up for taunting from the other kids.

His mother, Lorraine, had grown up on a farm near the rocky coastline of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Her father regularly traveled to the States to find work as a carpenter, and at age twenty-one, Lorraine had followed him. In Boston she fell for an Irish construction worker, got pregnant, and eventually gave birth to a boy she named Donald James Gillis, after her two brothers. Soon everyone took to calling him DJ.

After a few years raising DJ alone, Lorraine married a pipe fitter who helped build power plants, specializing in nuclear facilities. She had a son with him, and as he chased work across the country, she followed along with her two young boys. She was fond of her husband but felt that his weakness for alcohol made life a struggle. When he drank his wages, Lorraine had to provide for her sons with the small paychecks she earned working in a series of service jobs: waitress, hospital worker, clerk at a fireworks stand.

In this sea of uncertainty, Lorraine came to rely heavily on DJ. Even as a young boy, he had shown himself to be cool in a crisis. When he was eight years old, he appeared at their Oklahoma door carrying his bloodied five-year-old brother, David. DJ was holding a towel down on his brother's forehead and squeezing his hand tightly. Lorraine shrieked. "Oh my God! What happened?"

But DJ's first words to his mother were reassuring. "Don't be scared, Mom. He's gonna be okay."

A neighborhood punk had thrown a piece of pipe at DJ's brother, producing an enormous gash in his head. DJ had carried David several blocks home, like a firefighter calmly removing a child from a house in flames. "From that day on," Lorraine would later say, "DJ was like a father, constantly protecting his brother--and me."

When Lorraine finally tried to steel herself to leave her husband, DJ was the one she confided in. "Don't be scared, Mom," he told her. "You're tough. We can make it together." She drew strength from those words, even though they came from the mouth of a twelve-year-old boy.

After bouncing around for a few years, Lorraine and her sons landed back in the Boston area in 1984, on DJ's fifteenth birthday. They arrived in Newton, a small city bordering Boston, and settled into a gloomy, almost petrified house with plastic-encased sofas. It was owned by an invalid woman whom Lorraine would care for in exchange for housing. Newton was an affluent, education-obsessed city, so the transition was not easy for DJ, a high school freshman with a spotty transcript. Kids made fun of his cowboy boots and curious southern accent. They called him a redneck, a dagger of an insult if there ever was one in such a brainy town. When he visited classmates' homes, he found a degree of wealth that would have been inconceivable in the sticks of Tennessee and Oklahoma. It made him only more embarrassed about his borrowed space in an old lady's dusty house.

By his sophomore year, his family had moved to the neighboring city of Waltham, whose complexion turned quickly from gritty industry and tired triple-deckers to sleek high-tech offices and green suburbia. When he attended his first teen house party, he found himself being stared down by one of the toughest kids in school, a beefy pot dealer. DJ was tall but at that point very thin, so everyone expected him to get pummeled. Yet all those years moving around and constantly having to defend himself had turned him into an agile fighter. He ended up throwing the pot dealer through a window. After that, no one made fun of DJ's accent anymore.

Before long he was getting into so many fistfights that his guidance counselor called him into his office and asked, "Is everything all right at home?" He figured DJ's string of black eyes and busted lips were signs of abuse, not the emblems of his new identity as someone who was both cool and fearless.

The next year he transferred to the city's vocational high school, where he discovered a talent for welding. Before long, he picked up a part-time job with a local welder. After graduating from high school, his mother helped him buy a brand-new black Firebird Formula 350. He treasured that car, keeping it immaculate. He cruised the downtown strip with pride, as though his Firebird were announcing to the world the arrival of the kid who had always been ashamed of how little he had.

A life of the party who seemed just dangerous enough to be attractive, DJ had become a guy that girls wanted a piece of and other guys wanted to be around. He cemented his appeal by adding muscle to his build through weight lifting. After a lonely and turbulent childhood, he savored the newfound attention. He moved quickly and partied vigorously, making up for lost time.

Still, for all the fun he was having, DJ realized that on some level he was lost. He had struggled just to get through high school, so college didn't seem viable. He worked several blue-collar jobs but couldn't glimpse much of a future. When a relative offered him the chance to work with him doing commercial construction in Syracuse, New York, DJ said yes.

Cut off from their normal social circles, they filled some of their downtime taking scuba-diving lessons at a local pool. As a kid, DJ had always loved swimming, refusing to get out of the water until he had reached that blue-lipped, body-shivering state that only children and shipwreck victims seem able to tolerate. Before one class, as he flipped through a scuba magazine, he came across an article describing commercial diving as a career. It explained how these divers did underwater welding and construction and traveled the world, finding adventure and making good money. It dawned on DJ: This is something I could be good at.

In February 1991, twenty-one-year-old DJ moved to Houston to enroll at the Ocean Corporation dive school. After a month in school, around the time when many wannabe divers realize how punishing the job is and quit, DJ called home to Lorraine.

"Mom," he said, "this is exactly what I want to be doing."

DJ grabbed his yellow fiberglass diving helmet out of his truck and headed over to the job site. The SuperLite 17 was his prized possession. He'd bought it used, when he was just getting started in the Gulf, and even then it had set him back nearly three grand. Despite its name, the helmet still weighed about thirty pounds out of the water. This job in the fall of 1993 had brought DJ to a hydroelectric plant in southeastern Vermont. Given his experience as a deep-sea diver in the Gulf, where he'd done underwater welding at depths of 250 feet, he figured working in the waters of a New England river one-tenth as deep would be like a dip in the pool.

Excerpted from Trapped under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles into the Darkness by Neil Swidey
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