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."

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