Special Reports

200-pound 'dry suits' just the start for old-time divers

Equipment used by divers on the first Tacoma Narrows bridge was state-of-the-art gear in 1939, but it now looks almost comically antiquated.

The divers wore heavy rubber suits over wool pants and sweaters, 90-pound weight belts, shoes that weighed 18 pounds each and brass helmets that weighed 45 pounds - so heavy they had to be supported by steel frames mounted on the diver's shoulders.

The helmet was screwed onto the collar of the diving suit like the lid of a jam jar, then bolted into place to make an airtight seal. Air hose, lifeline and telephone cable were fused to the back of the helmet.

According to Joe Gotchy, who worked on both Narrows bridges and wrote an historical account called "Bridging the Narrows," four men did most of the diving on Galloping Gertie - Johnny Bacon, Bill Lahti and Chris Hansen, all employed by bridge builder Pacific Bridge - and Bill Reed, who worked for the state.

The four came to the job with impressive résumés, including stints on the Panama Canal and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Like matadors, the divers were dressed by "tenders," who also were responsible for their welfare underwater.

When fully outfitted - and about 200 pounds heavier - the diver pumped air into his suit and sat on a weighted bosun's chair tied to a 3/8-inch Manila rope.

The topside crew lowered him into the water and, as he released air from his suit, he dropped to the bottom.

Because of tides and the extreme pressure at 120-plus feet, the divers could stay down no longer than about 20 minutes. Almost always, they worked in darkness.

When ready to return to the surface, the diver let air into the suit and slowly floated up, guided by his lifeline.

Once on top, the tender hustled him out of his suit and into a speedboat, which took him to the decompression chamber at the company dock at the foot of Sixth Avenue.

In case divers suffered attacks of the "bends" after leaving the chamber, all wore large metal tags that read: "If found unconscious, rush to Narrows bridge construction dock at foot of Sixth Avenue. DO NOT CALL DOCTOR OR SEND TO HOSPITAL."

Ordinary medical care would have delayed further decompression, endangering the diver's life.

No divers were hurt on the Narrows job. But according to Gotchy, three of the four were incapacitated within a year after the bridge was finished in 1940.

Hanson was paralyzed and unable to work, Gotchy reported. Reed had a cerebral hemorrhage that ended his diving.

Bacon's diving suit ruptured while he was diving at Pearl Harbor, and he was crushed to death by water pressure.

Rob Carson 253-597-8693