Hazard Diving (4/6)

This six-part series examines some of the most dangerous jobs in the world and profiles the men who risk their lives to put in an honest day’s work.

The fourth episode of the series focuses on the lucrative world of commercial diving. US Underwater Services is one of America’s biggest commercial diving companies. Based in Dallas, Texas, it covers jobs throughout the country, from the icy seas of Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico. The experts’ work involves cleaning and repairing water towers, sewerage systems and offshore oil rigs. This profession can bring in salaries exceeding $100,000,but the work is incredibly dangerous. Working underwater brings with it the risk of internal injuries, such as embolisms, thrombosis and decompression sickness. “Complacency is what gets people killed,” says general manager Bryan Nicholls.

Commercial diving jobs are highly sought after, but difficult to attain. Eighty per cent of new rookies fail to pass their initial test. “People that come in think that it’s bikinis and Budweiser,” says Bryan, “but it’s really not.” Nineteen-year-old Matt Donaldson has just finished diving school and has left his family and friends behind in Seattle in order to pursue a career at the company. “The chicks dig it and I hope to make good money, so that’s why I’m here,” he says.

During his training, Matt will be working with experienced divers Chris Ryder and Matthew Olson. On the trio’s first job together, they check the interior of a water tower for cracks. The tower has a one million-gallon capacity and stands at 130ft. The men each have a different role in the operation – Matthew will perform the dive; Chris will direct the operation via radio from his base on the ground; and Matt is responsible for tending to the diving equipment atop the tower. The gear includes the vital “umbilical cord”, which is connected to the diver inside the tank. It consists of three leads –a rope, an
audio-visual cable and the crucial air pipe. With no experience working from such a height, Matt is very nervous. After a promising start, he makes a calamitous error –he has not attached his radio properly and it falls to the ground below. He now has no way of communicating with either Chris or Matthew. Fortunately, Matthew resurfaces safely. As punishment for his clumsy mistake, Matt is taken off dive operations and put on yard duty. He is also ostracised from the group. “You’ve got to be real hard on people to make them earn your trust,” says Matthew. Later in the week, Matt is asked to perform his first working dive. There is no room for error and it is make or break time for the young man if he is to fulfil a lifelong dream of becoming a professional diver.

Meanwhile, the veteran divers are called to a job at an oil rig in Mississippi. It is a lucrative contract, but a perilous one. New bolts need to be welded onto grilles beneath the site, which means mixing electricity with water. Enduring minor electric shocks is par for the course for anyone in the trade.
But there is an even greater threat lurking beneath the depths –the welding rods generate intense levels of heat, which in turn create hydrogen pockets above the divers’ heads. If they bring their rods close to these bubbles, they could cause a major explosion.

For professional divers, it is the level of danger that makes the job so appealing. “There are so many bad things that can happen, but that’s what makes it really fun,” enthuses Matthew.After two hours of
focused welding work, the exhausted diver is brought to the surface to rest. “I love doing it and can’t see myself doing anything else,” he concludes.

About the author

  • BBC One
  • BBC Two
  • BBC Three
  • ITV1
  • ITV2
  • 4
  • E4
  • Film4
  • More4
  • Five
  • Fiver
  • Sky1