A deep, dark, dirty job THE HIDDEN PORT

September 17, 1995|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,Sun Staff Writer

Diving isn't Bob Croot's job. It's just the way he gets to work.

Unlike some divers, Mr. Croot doesn't retrieve bodies or search for treasures. Instead, he rebuilds piers, rigs collapsed bridges, plants explosives underwater and mends phone and power cable lines.

"Basically, I'm an underwater mechanic," he said. "Just being able to breathe underwater doesn't make you money."

While his livelihood as a construction and salvage diver does not depend on shipping activity, the Port of Baltimore has been an integral part of his business for the past 20 years, whether he's rigging sunken barges or inspecting the hull of a massive cargo ship that's scraped bottom.

As long as water -- and people -- create problems, there will be a need for divers like Mr. Croot, who can fix things underwater. Recently, for instance, the 53-year-old self-employed diver was summoned to Curtis Creek in South Baltimore to cut an inner-spring mattress off the propeller of a stranded tugboat.

"I'll do anything as long as it doesn't affect my safety," said Mr. Croot, a trim man nearly six feet tall, with a ruddy complexion and a graying beard.

The son of a plumber, Mr. Croot grew up in Idaho. Early on, his father advised him to "narrow his field of interest." As it turned out, however, diving was one occupation that required a breadth of skills.

Having put himself through college by remodeling houses, Mr. ++ Croot was an experienced carpenter, electrician, and plumber -- all skills he would use underwater. After graduating with a science degree from the University of Idaho, he headed for the U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I.

Initially, he wanted to be a Navy flier but a congenital deformity limiting the movement of his elbows disqualified him. Technically, the same problem should have barred him as a Navy diver, but the Navy's Deep Sea Diving School in Washington, D.C., overlooked it and he trained there for a year.

In 1965, he married Nelda Lien, a fellow education major at Idaho who was looking, she recalls, for "just a normal life." What she got instead was a self-proclaimed "adrenalin freak" who would soon spend a year in South Vietnam in the Navy, installing offshore fuel lines and repairing river boat hulls underwater.

With Mr. Croot in love with such a dangerous profession, the couple made a deal.

"We agreed he'd take care of himself and I'd take care of me," said Mrs. Croot. And for 30 years -- as he leaves their Crownsville home nearly every morning year round to descend into the darkness of the harbor or the ocean -- that pact has worked.

The couple has two grown daughters who inherited their father's penchant for adventure. One recently hiked the 2,200 miles along the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine while the other backpacked into Mexico last year during the uprising by the Zapatista National Liberation Army.

On the bookshelf in their living room is a collection of Chinese, Russian and American diving helmets dating from 1916. Stacks of scrapbooks chronicle 20 years' worth of jobs and memories, like the Da Nang river boats or the collapsed crane at Dundalk Marine Terminal.

Commercial diving is considered an extremely dangerous occupation. Between 1,000 and 2,000 divers, like Mr. Croot, work primarily on inland waterways. According to a study by the National Underwater Accident Data Center at the University of Rhode Island, 18 such divers died on the job between 1989 and 1993.

Two years ago, a diver inspecting the hull of a ship at the port of Baltimore was killed after he became trapped in debris.

But Mr. Croot says he carefully weighs the risks inherent with each job. Today, even though he can work in a dry suit that totally insulates his body from the water, he no longer dives at sewage treatment plants where increasingly he had spotted hypodermic needles.

Throughout the years, caution has paid off. "Any diver who still has all his fingers is not running an unsafe operation," he declares.

Close calls

That doesn't mean he hasn't had close calls.

Four years ago, when he was underwater cutting holes in concrete near the National Aquarium, a gas pocket suddenly developed and exploded, breaking the face plate of his diving helmet. Because he didn't lose consciousness, he was able to face downward and fully open the valve controlling the air to his helmet. The air rushed in, blowing the water out of his helmet, and he rose to the surface immediately.

Nearly 20 years ago while working on a ship salvage project in Saudi Arabia, he got the "bends," when a nitrogen bubble lodged in his left shoulder. Another time, he was almost trapped by 140-degree foam he was pumping into a sunken ship in the St. Clair River in Michigan.

Like many maritime industry jobs, his work is unpredictable, coming in "fits and jerks", often precipitated by emergencies. Sometimes, he will leave his house in Crownsville at 6 a.m. and return three hours later. Often, the job takes him away for days.

"The idea of an eight-hour day just doesn't happen," he says.

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