Monday, June 28, 2010

Divers recover fog bell from Andrea Doria


Two New Jersey divers discovered the fog bell from the wreck of the Andrea Doria Saturday, digging the 80-pound chunk of brass out of the sea floor 245 feet down with just five minutes left on their air supply.

Divers Ernie Rookey of Jackson and Carl Bayer of Hillsborough were searching a debris field alongside the sunken luxury liner that went down in 1956 when they came the bell, three-quarters buried in sediment.

"It was obviously a bell, which is the find of a lifetime for any wreck diver,'' said Rookey, a scuba instructor with 40 years experience underwater. "The toughest part was getting it out of the mud.''

The divers had just five minutes left to stay on the bottom, with a lengthy decompression time ahead of them before they could safely surface. ""When you're doing a deep technical dive like that, you stick to schedules, or you're dead,'' Rookey said. Working frantically, they got the bell free and rigged it to two inflatable lift bags for the ascent to the dive boat, the Rhode Island-based RV Explorer.

The find is significant because it was the fog bell used by the bridge deck crew of the Italian luxury liner, said Dan Lieb of the New Jersey Historical Divers Museum in Wall. On July 25, 1956 the Andrea Doria collided in a heavy fog with the Swedish ship Stockholm, an accident that is still taught to mariners as a case study.

Subsequent investigations showed the Andrea Doria was operating at excessive speed for foggy conditions, and some blame was assigned to the bridge crews on both ships. The Doria's crew failed to follow proper radar and plotting procedures, while the radar officer on Stockholm misread the signal returns on his instruments to indicate the ships were farther apart than they actually were.

These technical mistakes are recounted in a display at the New Jersey Historical Divers Museum that features the recovered autopilot console from the Andrea Doria. Lying on its starboard side 100 miles offshore, the wreck is a popular but challenging recreational destination.

Rookey said there are plans to exhibit the bell July 9 at 8 p.m. when the divers give a presentation hosted by the Shore Aquatics Club at the Sea Girt fire house, and it will likely be displayed at New Jersey's shipwreck museums. "We feel it should stay in New Jersey,'' he said.