Gloucester's Teddy Barnes experienced the commercial diver's worst nightmare in the Inner Harbor last month.
Barnes, a 48-year-old professional diver of 28 years, who owns and operates Freedom Diving Corp. off Rogers Street with his wife Deborah, beat incredible odds just surviving an underwater accident. The quick actions of several fishermen were responsible in part for him being here today.
Prior to the accident, the affable diver with a warm glow to his face "... maintained about 80 percent of the fishing fleet (in town)," Barnes said, his speech still accented by his native Newfoundland brogue.
"I arrived in Gloucester two weeks after the Perfect Storm in 1991," he says. "Much of this community is a lot like Newfoundland. That's what drew me in part."
Much of his commercial work involves clearing fishing vessel propellers, often of rope or netting. Hiring Barnes is usually cheaper and quicker than dry-docking a vessel.
Capt. Geordie King did just that Feb. 5 to rid his 45-foot offshore gillnetter Ocean Pride III's four-bladed propeller of some gillnet. The southern Maine-based vessel regularly works out of Gloucester and docks at the end of the old Star Fisheries Wharf.
Barnes follows a specific safety procedure for each job.
"All commercial divers are trained to do safety things," he said. "I won't dive with an engine running. It's (having an engine start and its prop turn) the No. 1 concern when working (underwater) on boats. I still have to stop people from going on their boats and starting their engines."
Barnes further "...sets up diver's flags on board. Most of the time, the guys are never on the boats when I work."
"I spoke with Geordie (about clearing his prop) earlier in the day," Barnes recalled. The last thing he clearly remembers that bitter cold February afternoon was "getting in my truck (to drive to the Ocean Pride III). I don't remember anything after that until waking up in the hospital's intensive care unit the next morning."
Local captains Billy "Woody" Muniz and Billy Cunningham were talking fish in Muniz's truck in the vicinity of the Ocean Pride III when they "saw Teddy pull up in the truck," Muniz said.
In the meantime, as Barnes dove, Geordie King and at least one of his two additional crew members boarded the gillnetter not knowing Barnes was diving below. King planned to change the oil of the vessel's 365-horsepower diesel, so he started the engine in neutral shortly afterward.
From second-hand accounts, King then heard a "bang, bang." The engine stalled, and he restarted it. At this point, his crewman saw an unconscious Barnes floating to the stern of his boat.
Retired fisherman Carlo Moceri next saw and heard King frantically run up the dock shouting, "I need help."
After hearing the commotion, Muniz and Cunningham ran to the scene, followed by Moceri and Gloucester Seafood & Display Auction workers Danny Glynn and Josh Ryan. King's crewman tried to haul the tall Barnes — dressed in a bulky dry suit and weighted down by a weight belt and a heavy air tank — aboard with a rope and grapple hook. This didn't work.
Barnes' suit inflator hose was caught, probably on the propeller. King then strung a ladder off of the stern and climbed down into the 37-degree water to cut Barnes free and hold his head up.
"I thought he was dead. I screamed at him (King) to bring him back. I wasn't going to give up on him," said Muniz, from his position at the boat's stern. After about three minutes of Muniz repeatedly screaming, "Ted, you are going to be OK?" Barnes started moving.
"I shouted to (Gloucester police officer) Jimmy Rowley, 'He's alive.'"
By then, fire, police and Coast Guard personnel had arrived.
Emergency personnel soon hauled Barnes aboard a Coast Guard cutter and had him medevaced to a Boston hospital where he remained in the intensive care unit from Thursday evening until Monday.
"I had swallowed lots of water," Barnes said. Besides being knocked out, Barnes also had a broken clavicle bone in his left shoulder from the accident.
"Billy was the guy. He definitely saved Teddy. He knew enough to keep screaming his name," said Cunningham. "If Teddy also wasn't in such good shape, he would have been gone."
Muniz, 44, said Teddy's the eighth person he had saved during his over 25-year inshore and offshore fishing career.
Barnes has since pieced together what probably happened to him underwater.
"I had to be within an arm's length or closer to the prop when Geordie started the engine, and the wheel turned over," he said. "Those engines start fast, and the wheel will free spin with wear in the transmission (even when the transmission is in neutral).
"The wheel went around and struck my head and shoulder. It broke my mask and regulator. I literally drowned then. I was held down by the prop. My whip or inflator hose caught somewhere," he surmised.
"Salvi (Benson, another commercial diver in Gloucester) dove afterward," Barnes added. "He found I had 90 percent of the gillnetting off of the prop when the engine started."
Barnes also stressed he would have been "cut up" by the prop if the transmission was put into gear while the engine ran.
Barnes said he's sure "my safety equipment (flags) was set up."
"That day was very windy. I'm wondering if they blew overboard," Barnes said. "The flags have yet to be found.
Today, he said, "I'm on the mend."
"My doctor says I should have some good strength back in my arm by the end of July, and I will be able to dive again," Barnes stated.
Geordie King has resumed fishing. Those who know King know he is a very conscientious man. He was so shaken by this accident that he didn't fish for about three weeks right after it. King and crew were out fishing and could not be reached for comment for this story. But King and Barnes now share a special friendship. His heroic efforts also helped save Barnes' life.
"I'll never be able to thank everyone and everybody who jumped in — the fishermen, firemen, policemen, U.S. Coast Guard doctors, nurses and the chopper pilot — as much as I should," said Barnes.
"The best thing about this accident is you get to appreciate everything you have more. I now look at my wife, children and grandchildren and my life and appreciate them all the more," Barnes said. "This was just a fluke accident."