Diver recounts harbor accident that left him unconscious in water

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."

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Comment by Dale Harris on September 7, 2009 at 12:57pm
I think because of the importance of this subject here I might add a little something to this pot. Re: Inspections, prop cleaning anything that puts you under a small craft or ship. The key or switch to the engine isn't the only concern for a diver. From experience, the diver, entire crew and dive supervisor should also take note of the tides, effects of wakes or tidal wakes in relation to the clearance hull to berth depth, onboard automatic suctions, automatic postioning thrusters, as well as automatic discharges. Pilot house ignition systems and engine room controllers all must be identified and... LOCK OUT TAGS, LOCK OUT TAGS AND MORE LOCK OUT TAGS and some duct tape to cover switches. Make sure "you" the diver asks about any AUTOMATIC TIMED SYSTEMS. Sonar systems ect., Everything as much as possible should be dead "off" The best defence is COMMUNICATION, TAGGING/ LOCKING OUT of service. Shallow, Low water ports, better pay attention to the tides and effects of wakes! I came close once in the HUDSON RIVER inspecting the underside of a barge. I won't ever forget that lesson. I have to thank my tender/diver for informing me of a passing barge with tug. Sure enough, the barge I was under hit solid on the bottom. The silt plume was evidence, that would have left a mark! One more thing, make sure you collect each and every tag you've placed WHEN YOU LEAVE OR FINISH YOUR DIVE. For the most part, eveyone will be onboard the safety ship if you are. We all probaby have done solo "QUIKY"dives too and a lot of them. But allowing for the wind to take your tag or flag COULD COST YOU DEARLY. Hang in there Mr. Barnes I'll bet you don't forget this one! Your accident and these posts probaby saved or will save someones life down the road. DALE
Comment by Tony Liddicoat on September 6, 2009 at 10:07am
A very moving account of an accident and I wish Teddy Barnes a speedy and complete recovery. As much of his diving involves working on the fishing fleet I wish to offer a suggestion which I used and helped me when asked to work on boats. When in the Military, as a diver,[a lot of years] it was always easier to control the bridge access as the captain and crew were always accountable and access to the vessel was always escorted and in some instances a proforma would be signed by the Captain or duty officer to say that they had full knowledge of underwater work by divers and that the engines would not be started without clearance from the dive supervisor. When you do not have the luxury of a team to assist you and working and diving alone, I had a metal board made up and painted in bright orange 'dayglo' paint and clearly printed on it in black capital letters was, "DO NOT START ENGINES, DIVER WORKING BELOW" I then used to fix this over the ignition in the wheel house and if possible fix it so that it blocked the access by the ignition key. Anybody who entered the wheelhouse would instantly see and read the sign and know not to start the engine, thus hopefully prevent a horrible accident. The 'dayglo' sign became part of the callout kit and was always there if we needed it. A roll of guntape was also there for sticking the sign on. I do know of some fellow divers who insist on having the ignition keys in their possession whilst they dive but this idea is flawed if there are several sets of keys held by various members of the crew. Remember of course to remove and take the sign with you after "Five Bells" Job Done, or you won't be thanked if the vessel is moored up waiting for the 'all clear' unecessarily. Get well soon Teddy.

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