In Sept. 1965 Hurricane Betsy ravaged southern Louisiana, leaving in its wake an inland shipping disaster with 200+ vessels sunk or stranded along the Mississippi. But the nightmare had only begun for during the storm MTC 602 with a cargo of 600 tons of liquid chlorine had been ripped loose from its moorings in Baton Rouge and swamped by a wave, the barge and it's lethal cargo lay on the bottom somewhere, location unknown, a ticking time bomb. If the liquid chlorine in the barge's tanks escaped, the resulting gas cloud could kill tens of thousands of people.
For nine long weeks the nation held its breath. A 38 mile stretch of the Mississippi River was closed to shipping for fear that a ship could ram the wrecked barge or an anchor smash a chlorine tank. Using antisubmarine sonar sets to scan the bottom, the missing barge was finally found a week after Betsy hit. MTC 602 was in 60 feet of water, just off the Louisiana State University campus.
Experts converged on the site from across the nation. Every angle, every contingency was carefully studied. They couldn't lift the barge; its skin plate was only 5/16 of an inch thick. The tanks couldn't be lifted separately; they were welded to the barge. It was decided that the tanks would all be lifted at once.
Thirty-two teams of divers hired by J. Ray McDermott Co., worked 24/7 in almost zero vis. The currents were tricky, at times moving at three feet a second. The equipment was heavy weighing anywhere from 75-200 lbs. everything but hand tools was controlled by power air lines. Generally a diver could only work 90 minutes a day, at times it took three men to pull the exhausted diver up out of the water. Diver injuries were frequent, one diver cut his hand requiring 9 stitches, and another lost the tip of his thumb. Diver Joe Savoie got his hose hooked on a tree that had fallen across the sunken barge, "I couldn't pull any slack or let go to try to move-I'd risk the bends. So I stayed put for 15 minutes, until another diver pulled me free."
The underwater job took 20 days and nights. Everything had to be tied up into one rigid package. Finally on Friday, Nov. 12, everything was ready. The skies were overcast and mist hung above the river. Army and CG helicopters hovered overhead, ready to alert the public to evacuate and to track the deadly cloud if things should go wrong. Gas masks with issued to those on duty in the danger zone. Standing by were huge wind machines, the kind used in movies to create gales. If the chlorine escaped, engineers would attempt to roll back the poison gas cloud behind a windwall, to give crewmen a chance to escape from the salvage vessels.
Though it seemed like a lifetime, the lifting operation was completed in two hours and fifteen minutes. The next day the barge was refloated and its lethal cargo unloaded. Salvage Project 602 was completed, at a cost of $1 million dollars - but without a single fatality.
(So the next time someone says commercial divers are nothing more than underwater construction workers or subsea janitors...ask them if they'd want a janitor handling a job like this one.) ~ lol Diva