There are certain people that you instinctively know are in control of situations. Some may be natural born pilots who could land a washing machine on a trash can lid.
The ship captain who could bring in a cargo when the rest of the fleet hid in port from the storm. Maybe the engine mechanic who gets the island’s generator going again with a handful of mismatched Volvo parts, three hair pins, and part of Kate Moss’s Wonder Bra for a fan belt. Or the guy who survived for sixteen days in a life raft with nothing but a soggy Twinkie, two rusted fish hooks, half a Grateful Dead concert ticket, and four ounces of three-day old Bong water from a 1960’s vintage hash pipe.
Yeah, these are the characters that you jump up behind and follow out of the burning movie theater without even considering another exit. Or you simply take their advice without argument as they casually say, “don’t eat the purple berries,” when you’re a couple hundred miles up the Amazon basin. Because beyond all doubt, they’ve got the “right stuff” and the only stuff you’ve got is still stuck to the bottom of your hiking boots.
I knew a guy like that named Dave Coston. He was about thirty-five when I first met him in 1971 and, of course, it amazed me that he could still walk upright unassisted at such an advanced age… much less stand the rigors of professional diving. My perspective, honed from accumulating twenty-one birthdays of my own, left me convinced on my own absolute immortality and Dave spent the next five years or so showing me how idiots like myself could survive extraordinary circumstances in spite of our immaturity.
St. Croix in the early 1970’s was gold mine for a guy like Dave who could do just about anything and do it well. He’d dabbled in construction, electrical engineering, landscape architecture, heavy equipment operation, and finally settled on diving as means of combining his hobby with a career that was suitably swashbuckling but would still allow him membership in the local yacht club.
Dave wasn’t an imposing figure physically. He probably topped out at 150 pounds or so including his faded Greek fisherman’s cap. His hair and neatly trimmed beard had gone prematurely white so he sort of had a look that conjured up an image of your grandfather who just finished an “Iron Man” contest.
He was a man of few words and did not suffer fools gladly. Those of us who knew him well had learned to listen precisely to what he said and then do exactly as bidden. Otherwise we had discovered that the barge septic tank emptied a ton of effluent on top of you or a blast of compressed air removed all body hair and several outer layers of skin when you turned the valve the wrong way. Then he’d smile wryly and inquire what you hadn’t understood about his original instructions. You learned quickly around Dave Coston. Actually that seemed like the key to survival and whatever retirement plan we might hope for.
But he would never ask anyone to do something that he wouldn’t do himself. He led by example and his eager disciples fell in line behind him just glad for the opportunity to learn from the master.
All of us knew how to dive; hell, that’s what we did for a living. But Dave taught us the skills to be valuable underwater craftsmen and to think through a problem and apply the easiest way to a solution instead just getting a bigger hammer and pounding harder.
And in spite of the fact that what we did was inherently dangerous, he always emphasized how to best apply safety procedures and made us map out elaborate contingency plans for whatever project we took on. His vision would save us all from losing various body parts to underwater pneumatic tools, being sucked into high pressure water intakes, chopped up in dredges, or blown up in our TNT charges. It would also teach us to save his life.
In July of 1971, Dave had a contract involving over a hundred divers working on lowering the ship channel approach to Hess Oil’s plant from a controlling depth of 45 feet to 60 feet. This involved one hell of a lot of explosives, several large tugs and half dozen giant dredge barges to remove the aftermath of our little demolition exercises.
By the end of the first week visibility along the island’s south shore was about twelve inches and pretty much everything underwater was done by touch and feel. It was no place for the claustrophobic. In fact, it helped a lot to stay sort of perpetually wired and not think too much about the hazards.
One day a barge capsized and spilled a load of four-foot diameter pipe all over the sandy bottom. It was days before we were able to sling these monsters and get them raised again. Shortly after that we resumed our systematic blasting. Our standard drill at the end of each day was a diver sweep of the blast area to see if we needed to mark any large debris for separate hoist before the dredges moved in. Since we couldn’t see anything due the visibility, the teams would work on buddy lines and measure objects by arm span. If you couldn’t reach around something, you sent up a float buoy and another team would come down and sling the boulder or whatever and haul it away.
Late one afternoon around 4:30, Dave was swimming the end of a sweep line when he slammed into a large object. Examining it by feel, he quickly determined that it was one of the big dredge pipes that had fallen overboard earlier and not been found. Since these things were nearly a hundred feet long he deployed a float from one end and began to swim to the other end. When he arrived at the pipe opening he fanned the sand from underneath to pass a loop around for his other float buoy.
But while he had his hand under the pipe, another energetic crew had rigged a sling on the other end and had the dredge begin lifting. In a split second, his left hand was pinned to the bottom as the other end was raised. It was just enough force to pin his fingers between the flat rock of the sea bottom and the pipe so he couldn’t remove them… but not enough to crush them. The dredge crew held the north end of the pipe about three feet off the bottom and waited for the other end to be rigged before finishing the lift. Meanwhile they had unintentionally anchored Dave beneath the south end of some very heavy plumbing.
All efforts to extract his fingers were futile and he was left alone in zero visibility to ponder his options. He knew that all divers were due up by 5:00 PM or his dive supervisors would send out search teams. He was just able to read his pressure gauge, about 1700 psi, and that didn’t seem likely to last him long enough until help would get there. And then he’d still have to deal with getting his end of the pipe raised and getting his hand out.
Most of us dove those days in canvas overalls and simple backpacks. Dave had added an early edition floatation vest after getting left offshore one day and bobbing around in the six-foot swell treading water. He quickly sized up the situation and calculated that his tank wouldn’t last long enough in fifty feet of water before he drowned.
Necessity being the mother of invention, he decided to employ his vest as a rebreather. He orally inflated the vest and then began breathing from it until the CO2 built up to an uncomfortable level. Then he’d switch back to his regulator, catch his breath with good clean air from the tank, vent the vest, and start the cycle all over again. Over an hour went by. The topside teams were scrambled looking for him to no avail and he was down to less than 300 psi in his cylinder.
That’s when he decided to amputate his fingers with his knife. He had thought it all through and knew he needed to start the cuts in advance so he could get a good clean break through the bones at the last moment. It took him another few minutes to work his small utility knife over his fingers and begin the first incisions. He wanted to use his heavy dive knife to break the bones and paused to reach back to position it for the final plunge. A quick look at his gauge confirmed he was down to about 100 psi. Time was up. He lay quietly to catch his breath and hoped he wouldn’t pass out from the pain that was about to come.
As he reached in to drive the knife blade down with all his force, he felt the shaft poke something soft and a corresponding grunt of surprise and outrage. He’d jammed his knife right into the shoulder of sweep diver, Ralph Yula, reaching around the pipe end.
We’d finally figured that Dave had to be somewhere along that submerged pipe after finding his buoy at the other end. But it took nearly twenty minutes of careful search to find him. Ralph began buddy breathing with Dave and deployed his own float. Three of us dropped in on them within two minutes and lifted the pipe off Dave’s hand.
He calmly pulled his fingers free, holstered his knives and swam slowly to the surface in the remaining twilight. As he related the story to us on the boat, we listened in fascinated horror. Finally someone asked, “do you really think you could have cut off your fingers and not passed out?”
“No problem,” Dave replied. “Remember, I didn’t have to do the thumb. That would have been a difficult angle. Yeah, if I had to do the thumb I’d have really been in trouble.”
Ten minutes later with his wounds patched up with duct tape and caulking cotton, he stood on the dive platform and directed the team “to get that goddamn pipe out my ship channel!”
On the ride back in, Dave lit one his favorite “Rum-soaked Crooks” cigars and honed his knife blade on a whetstone. His accompanying lecture on the best method to effect a clean bone break was greeted by several group “hurls” over the lee rail. But the teacher had our undivided attention.
Bret Gilliam has been a professional diver since 1971 with over 18,000 dives logged. He worked as a commercial diver in the Virgin Islands in the early 1970’s. He has all his fingers and toes.