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A deep, dark, dirty job THE HIDDEN PORT


Diving isn't Bob Croot's job. It's just the way he gets to work.

Unlike some divers, Mr. Croot doesn't retrieve bodies or search for treasures. Instead, he rebuilds piers, rigs collapsed bridges, plants explosives underwater and mends phone and power cable lines.

"Basically, I'm an underwater mechanic," he said. "Just being able to breathe underwater doesn't make you money."

While his livelihood as a construction and salvage diver does not depend on shipping activity, the Port of Baltimore has been an integral part of his business for the past 20 years, whether he's rigging sunken barges or inspecting the hull of a massive cargo ship that's scraped bottom.

As long as water -- and people -- create problems, there will be a need for divers like Mr. Croot, who can fix things underwater. Recently, for instance, the 53-year-old self-employed diver was summoned to Curtis Creek in South Baltimore to cut an inner-spring mattress off the propeller of a stranded tugboat.

"I'll do anything as long as it doesn't affect my safety," said Mr. Croot, a trim man nearly six feet tall, with a ruddy complexion and a graying beard.

The son of a plumber, Mr. Croot grew up in Idaho. Early on, his father advised him to "narrow his field of interest." As it turned out, however, diving was one occupation that required a breadth of skills.

Having put himself through college by remodeling houses, Mr. ++ Croot was an experienced carpenter, electrician, and plumber -- all skills he would use underwater. After graduating with a science degree from the University of Idaho, he headed for the U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I.

Initially, he wanted to be a Navy flier but a congenital deformity limiting the movement of his elbows disqualified him. Technically, the same problem should have barred him as a Navy diver, but the Navy's Deep Sea Diving School in Washington, D.C., overlooked it and he trained there for a year.

In 1965, he married Nelda Lien, a fellow education major at Idaho who was looking, she recalls, for "just a normal life." What she got instead was a self-proclaimed "adrenalin freak" who would soon spend a year in South Vietnam in the Navy, installing offshore fuel lines and repairing river boat hulls underwater.

With Mr. Croot in love with such a dangerous profession, the couple made a deal.

"We agreed he'd take care of himself and I'd take care of me," said Mrs. Croot. And for 30 years -- as he leaves their Crownsville home nearly every morning year round to descend into the darkness of the harbor or the ocean -- that pact has worked.

The couple has two grown daughters who inherited their father's penchant for adventure. One recently hiked the 2,200 miles along the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine while the other backpacked into Mexico last year during the uprising by the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

On the bookshelf in their living room is a collection of Chinese, Russian and American diving helmets dating from 1916. Stacks of scrapbooks chronicle 20 years' worth of jobs and memories, like the Da Nang river boats or the collapsed crane at Dundalk Marine Terminal.

Commercial diving is considered an extremely dangerous occupation. Between 1,000 and 2,000 divers, like Mr. Croot, work primarily on inland waterways. According to a study by the National Underwater Accident Data Center at the University of Rhode Island, 18 such divers died on the job between 1989 and 1993.

Two years ago, a diver inspecting the hull of a ship at the port of Baltimore was killed after he became trapped in debris.

But Mr. Croot says he carefully weighs the risks inherent with each job. Today, even though he can work in a dry suit that totally insulates his body from the water, he no longer dives at sewage treatment plants where increasingly he had spotted hypodermic needles.

Throughout the years, caution has paid off. "Any diver who still has all his fingers is not running an unsafe operation," he declares.

Close calls

That doesn't mean he hasn't had close calls.

Four years ago, when he was underwater cutting holes in concrete near the National Aquarium, a gas pocket suddenly developed and exploded, breaking the face plate of his diving helmet. Because he didn't lose consciousness, he was able to face downward and fully open the valve controlling the air to his helmet. The air rushed in, blowing the water out of his helmet, and he rose to the surface immediately.

Nearly 20 years ago while working on a ship salvage project in Saudi Arabia, he got the "bends," when a nitrogen bubble lodged in his left shoulder. Another time, he was almost trapped by 140-degree foam he was pumping into a sunken ship in the St. Clair River in Michigan.

Like many maritime industry jobs, his work is unpredictable, coming in "fits and jerks", often precipitated by emergencies. Sometimes, he will leave his house in Crownsville at 6 a.m. and return three hours later. Often, the job takes him away for days.

"The idea of an eight-hour day just doesn't happen," he says.

A decent living

But the profession provides him a respectable income, even after he pays all his costs, including his extremely expensive workmen's compensation and liability insurance.

"I make more in a year than my friends who work for the NSA and IRS, but less per hour," Mr. Croot said.

He operates out of a 16-foot, steel-colored van, loaded with tools. Many he built himself, sometimes using scrap that he's retrieved from sunken ships.

Working in pitch blackness, he sometimes can use a light on his diving helmet. But often lights are useless because the debris in the water reflects the light back at him. Typically, Mr. Croot relies on homemade tools such as a metal gauge that lets him measure as little as 1/16 of an inch by feeling notches.

Task at hand

On a recent summer morning, Mr. Croot arrived at Inner Harbor, where he had been hired by Martin G. Imbach Co. to help with its restoration of an 80-year bulkhead. His task was to help close a gap between a new underwater wall of steel sheeting and a storm drainage pipe.

Mr. Croot pulled on his wet suit and put on his 55-pound diving helmet. He also wore coveralls to prevent his wet suit from being caught on debris or sharp objects. Getting dressed no longer requires assistance as it once did when he donned a full set of Navy diving gear weighing 200 pounds.

Dave Lau, his tender of 12 years, hooked the air hose, attached to an engine-driven compressor, onto Mr. Croot's helmet. Then Mr. Croot climbed down the ladder, slowly submerging into the murky waters of the Inner Harbor off Pratt Street between Piers 4 and 5.

With years' accumulation of motor oil, algae, tannic acid and other chemicals, the harbor's water is filthy, yet not as dirty as 10 years ago, Mr. Croot says.

Still, Mr. Croot wears an ordinary wet suit, which allows some water to seep in and touch his skin. When he's working in contaminated water, such as the area around the old Allied Chemical plant, or in icy conditions, he wears a completely air tight "dry suit" that totally insulates his body.

In only eight feet of water, Mr. Croot works for three hours to set in place a form into which Imbach would pour concrete to seal the gap. Decompression is a threat only at greater depths. For divers, the rule of thumb is 60 feet for 60 minutes.

Using the two-way radio inside his helmet, Mr. Croot maintains constant contact with Mr. Lau, who stays on the pier. While the radio is the most important piece of safety equipment, the two will occasionally signal each other, using a throwback to old Navy days when no radios existed.

Four pulls on the air hose -- by either diver or tender -- means come up. One pull asks: "Are you OK?" In return, one pull says: "I'm OK."

'Still too much fun'

Though he works in darkness, diving is rarely frightening, Mr. Croot says. More often, it can be boring if he must wait, for instance, for a board to be cut and lowered to him.

At 53, Mr. Croot has outlasted most others in a physically and mentally demanding profession. While he says he's "well past the occupational life expectancy of a commercial diver," he has no plans to retire.

"The nuts and bolts of diving are still too much fun," he said. "I'm generally very happy to get up in the morning to go do what needs to be done in the water."

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