Category: Archive

Newry diver plumbs depths

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

Construction is a hazardous industry in which to work, but few have a building job as dangerous as that of Peter Fitzpatrick.

Fitzpatrick, an Irish immigrant from Newry, Co. Down, is a commercial diver for whom a normal day’s work means climbing into the dank waters around New York and New Jersey, often repairing damaged and decaying piers, or helping to install foundations for new ones.

Underwater welding? Fitpatrick’s your man. Directing heavy lifting equipment at 40 feet beneath the surface? Not a problem. He shrugged off water extraction contractor John Corkery’s compliment that he was “one of the bravest guys I have ever met.”

When Corkery’s emergency pumping team needed expert divers to enter the waterlogged New Jersey PATH train tunnels after Sept. 11, Fitzpatrick was one of the men who came on board.

Conditions in the tunnels were unknown, but potentially deadly: water was certainly present and building, so it was essential to send in professional divers with construction and engineering experience.

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Fitzpatrick, who has been in the U.S. for several years, was part of a back-up team of divers, but he did enter one of the tunnels, wading about 1,500 feet in knee-deep water down the one-mile-long tunnel underneath the Hudson River toward the PATH train stop underneath the World Trade Center site.

Although he was never fully submerged, Fitzpatrick said he needed his full diving suit and breathing apparatus — “the carbon monoxide content in the tunnel was fairly high,” he said. Corkery recalled that “the tunnel had a 20-mile-an-hour, hot air breeze, smelling of death coming from the WTC.”

“They were pumping from the deepest part of the tunnel,” Fitzpatrick said, “and we were taking in the pumping pipes, plugging the ends of the pipes to fill them with air, then removing the plugs, sinking them in the water. It was done very professionally.”

Temperatures were high in the tunnels, so the divers were coming out fairly dehydrated. But Fitzpatrick, relaxing at home with a beer on his deck facing the Pocono Mountains, disagreed that his job is perilous.

“It’s like any other construction job, not really that dangerous,” he said. “The people I work with are very professional.”

Within a few days of his stint at the PATH train tunnels, Fitzpatrick is back to regular work repairing piers in Red Hook, Brooklyn.

Before entering the water, the divers are briefed with engineers’ maps of the area.

“There is often one to two feet visibility, darker than dark,” Fitzpatrick, who’s 40, said. “You always see some trash lying on the bottom that you have to be careful of, but you would see that diving in the Liffey or in the canal in Newry. In recent years, I have noticed a lot more fish as water conditions have improved. We all get a once-a-year medical and our hepatitis shots.”

Fitzpatrick said he expects to keep on diving for some years.

“There are guys diving well into their 50s and some into their 60s,” he said. “You ease off a little by then, taking on a more supervisory role — lighter stuff.”

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