Awash in uncertainty Pfiesteria: A man who has spent his life around perilous work cannot afford an illness that includes confusion and memory lapses, certainly not while working underwater.

October 27, 1997|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

WESTOVER -- So many physical ailments have come Tim Murray's way that it seems perfectly consistent that the Pfiesteria illness would pay him a visit, too. In his headlong rush through 38 years, the commercial diver has logged broken bones, cracked ribs, skull fractures, separated shoulders, lacerations and acid burns. Once, his heart stopped beating for two minutes and 40 seconds. A doctor reviewing his health rap sheet might well conclude that Murray had simply become too easy a mark for garden-variety mishaps. Something more exotic was called for.

Murray is himself a chaser of exotica. It's why he makes his living underwater, a job site where he is able to indulge his passion for "experiencing what the average person never will."

And so he has.

Murray is one of at least 35 Marylanders believed to have suffered the bewildering mix of symptoms that have come to be associated with Pfiesteria: stomach pains, diarrhea, headaches, and -- especially alarming for most -- a severely unreliable memory and periods of extreme confusion.

Murray's addition to the list added a troubling dimension to the crisis that has puzzled teams of scientists and state officials since its onset during the summer. Murray's diagnosis by Pocomoke City physician Ritchie Shoemaker late last month seemed to suggest that the rapacious microorganism Pfiesteria piscicida, the perpetrator behind large fish kills in the Pocomoke River, also had found its way to other Eastern Shore waterways, including the Wicomico Creek near Salisbury where Murray had been working and where he apparently was poisoned.

Pfiesteria chased Murray from the water for the six weeks during which he waited for his symptoms to recede. His condition has improved; Shoemaker gave him permission to resume diving (although only in waters definitely free of Pfiesteria). But like other Pfiesteria victims, Murray is left with thus far unanswerable worries about relapses and long-term effects.

Of all things, this man who hungers for the unknown now finds himself saying "It's the uncertainty that's scaring me here."

Tim Murray is a compact plug of a man in bib overalls. He has bristly auburn hair, a walrus mustache and thick, Popeye forearms that are roughly the same shape as the oxygen tanks he uses. Murray is president of Acme Diving Inc. as well as its most valuable piece of equipment. He started off in auto-body work, but never recovered from the thrill he enjoyed as a kid diving into the quarries around Rockville. So as an adult, he made a mid-course career correction, downward.

Murray does not consider himself a reckless man, although his body might protest. He has been in car and motorcycle accidents that nearly killed him. He has been cut, burned and suffered broken bones and ribs from underwater mishaps. The biggest threat to his health was caused by his own stupidity. Some years back, he sliced his hand in a beer-drinking competition, and the lidocaine a doctor applied to him caused an allergic reaction that stopped his heart. He now has a pacemaker. He also doesn't drink. Oddly -- for a diver -- he does smoke, which probably contributes to the guttural sound of his voice.

Diving has taken Murray, the divorced father of two children, to locales around the hemisphere, to jobs as far-flung as Virginia, Florida, California and beyond. Much of the work involves underwater welding, like a recent job at a hydroelectric plant on the James River near Lynchburg. He has also done a fair amount of salvage work, and once he helped documentarians film hammerhead sharks off the Bahia Islands in the Caribbean. Right now, he's considering two jobs, one in Ohio and a more intriguing one raising logs from the bottom of the Belize River in Central America.

In late June, Murray started a job at the Wicomico Yacht Club, elegantly nestled on the grassy banks of the Wicomico Creek southwest of Salisbury. Murray was hired to do underwater refurbishment of the bulkhead, docks and boathouses. As is his practice, Murray did the diving while his girlfriend, Nancy Abbott, remained topside to keep track of his life support lines. Occasionally, Nancy's 15-year-old son, Ross, and his teen-age cousin helped out as well. Although Murray continued to fit in other jobs, he was passing the largest share of his summer submerged in the Wicomico.

By late August, he realized he wasn't himself. "I had a lack of energy, a queasy stomach, a headache all the damn time. I got winded easy, which is really unusual for me. I got the lungs of a 17-year-old non-smoker that's the captain of the football team. But now, just eating a sandwich was winding me."

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