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Publisher's Summary

A quarter-century ago, Boston had the dirtiest harbor in America. The city had been dumping sewage into it for generations, coating the seafloor with a layer of “black mayonnaise.” Fisheries collapsed, wildlife fled, and locals referred to floating tampon applicators as “beach whistles.”

In the 1990s, work began on a state-of-the-art treatment plant and a 10-mile-long tunnel - its endpoint stretching farther from civilization than the earth’s deepest ocean trench - to carry waste out of the harbor. With this impressive feat of engineering, Boston was poised to show the country how to rebound from environmental ruin. But when bad decisions and clashing corporations endangered the project, a team of commercial divers was sent on a perilous mission to rescue the stymied cleanup effort. Five divers went in; not all of them came out alive.

Drawing on hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents collected over five years of reporting, award-winning writer Neil Swidey takes us deep into the lives of the divers, engineers, politicians, lawyers, and investigators involved in the tragedy and its aftermath, creating a taut, action-packed narrative. The climax comes just after the hard-partying DJ Gillis and his friend Billy Juse trade assignments as they head into the tunnel, sentencing one of them to death.

An intimate portrait of the wreckage left in the wake of lives lost, the book is also a morality tale. What is the true cost of these large-scale construction projects, as designers and builders, emboldened by new technology and pressured to address a growing population’s rapacious needs, push the limits of the possible? This is a story about human risk - how it is calculated, discounted, and transferred - and the institutional failures that can lead to catastrophe.

Suspenseful yet humane, Trapped Under the Sea reminds us that behind every bridge, tower, and tunnel - behind the infrastructure that makes modern life possible - lies unsung bravery and extraordinary sacrifice.

©2014 Neil Swidey (P)2014 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

"A harrowing account of how commercial divers risk their lives to improve ours. After reading Neil Swidey’s Trapped Under the Sea, you will never look at a bridge or tunnel in the same way."
—Men's Journal

"Neil Swidey's detail-rich account of this unlikely disaster is a stirring tribute to the men, how they lived, and how they died."
—Mother Jones

"Trapped Under the Sea is extraordinary. It bears comparison with The Perfect Storm in its brilliant evocation of everyday, working class men thrust into a harrowing, at times heroic confrontation with death and disaster."
Dennis Lehane, author of Live By Night and Shutter Island

"This book will take you on a journey into a fascinating but little-known world—it’s the anatomy of a tragedy, a dramatic tale with a cast of vividly drawn characters, superbly written and researched."
Jonathan Harr, author of A Civil Action and The Lost Painting
"Trapped Under the Sea is a heartbreaking tale of real-life bravery, real-life bungling, and real-life tragedy. Neil Swidey is a terrific storyteller."
Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe

"Thrilling and beautifully told, Trapped Under the Sea delivers us into a dangerous and mysterious world, a place that speaks to our darkest fears and where heroes work, as Swidey so masterfully shows us, just beneath the surface of our everyday lives."
Robert Kurson, author of Shadow Divers

"A fascinating, sympathetic, and suspenseful look at a doomed, high-risk engineering job, the working class men who dared to undertake it, and its ripple effect on the survivors. Claustrophobic and compelling."
Chuck Hogan, author of Devils in Exile and The Town 

"A marvel of masterful reporting and suspenseful writing. Neil Swidey has delivered a gripping, action-filled account of the human costs deep inside a feat of modern engineering. He has a remarkable knack for bringing to life indelible characters and making readers hold our breath as these brave men enter the claustrophobic world of their undersea lives."
Mitchell Zuckoff, author of Frozen in Time and Lost in Shangri-La
"Trapped Under the Sea offers vital insights into how organizations work—or fail to work—and how very smart people can make very bad decisions. Neil Swidey’s riveting account of the Deer Island disaster should be essential reading for anyone in a position of leadership. I couldn’t put it down."
Amy Edmondson, Harvard Business School Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management and author of Teaming
"A masterfully reported, grippingly written, and moving case study of how the emotional way we assess risk can lead to deadly mistakes. Nearly everyone in this sad story, driven by their own unique motivations, misjudged a deadly danger that was staring them in the face, and the results were tragic. There are lessons here, for all of us."
David Ropeik, author of Risk!

"With the pacing and feel of a special-ops adventure and the insight of a public-policy investigation, Swidey details the lives of the divers, leading up to their fateful mission, the horrors of the ordeal, and its aftermath as the survivors coped with trauma and guilt."
Booklist, starred review

"Gripping…This virtuoso performance combines insights into massive engineering projects, corporate litigation, environmental science, and cutthroat free-market behavior with vivid personal stories."
Publishers Weekly, starred review 

"Enlightening...Provides immense detail about the challenges, solutions, politics, management, legalities, and personnel involved in a huge, expensive, necessary project that transformed Boston Harbor from an open sewer into a recreational area...yet never loses sight of the people involved."
—Library Journal, starred review

"A story of infrastructure told on a human scale and a trenchant reminder that the modern metropolis comes with high risks and savage costs."
Kirkus Reviews

From the Hardcover edition.

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An Engineer's Prospective

I am a professional Civil Engineer for over 40 years. I had not been aware of the Deer Island incident described in this book. I found the detailed narrative about the characters and the agencies involved fascinating if not truly sad.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Benoibe
  • New Orleans, LA, United States
  • 02-22-14

Wow! This is unbelievably good audiobook.

I have a long list of finished books that I haven't reviewed. Despite the this backup, I had to stop everything to write about this book.

This true story is compelling beyond anything Ive read recently. Maybe it isn't the best book ever written, but it is one of the most addictive and fascinating true stories. It will stick with me for a long time to come. Well written and VERY WELL READ!! I didn't know what to expect when I got this, but the intensity of story and of the delivery by the narrator had me hooked withing the first few minutes. I also learned a great deal about commercial deep sea diving. It's unbelievable what these guys do!
The story is intense, tragic, but hopeful in the end.
I highly recommend this to anyone who likes climbing or other survival/expedition type books. I recommend it to anyone really.

There are a few silly metaphors that made me cringe a few times, so I can't say this author is going to win any great literary awards. But he has a fine style of writing that kept me on the edge of my seat and wanting to know more. It was very well written for the action, suspense and intensity. I didn't want it to end!!

Also for this particular story, there is no one better fit as narrator. I'm wasn't familiar with David Lawrence. But he gave an excellent performance!! I'll keep my eye out for both author and narrator in the future!

14 of 17 people found this review helpful

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  • Thomas
  • Shih-Chyr City, Taiwan
  • 02-17-15

Fascinating Story-Compelling Characters

Enjoyed the many facets of this story. Like watching a train about to crash with the aftermath of how it could happen and the suffering of all parties.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • E
  • 09-14-16

Fascinating, gripping!

Coming to know the real people behind the project made this documentary relatable. What would you do if you were 10 miles into a tunnel with diminishing air and no hope of rescue? What would you do if you were the boss of the project? Learning about how our engineers do what they do was invaluable. As a Bostonian, I can appreciate these events that unfolded right here, where I live.

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Sad Loss

enjoyed the book I work in the construction industry so this was very eye opening

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The first 2/3 was great, then 5 more hours...

I really liked this book for the first 10 hours, unfortunately it's a 15 hour book. The first part of the book is engaging like a mystery novel. Lot's of foreshadowing and I found myself trying to figure out what was going to happen. Getting a glimpse into a major public works project and all the infighting between the contractor, the engineer and the city was interesting.

At about the 10 hour mark, the story was told, all the mysteries answered. I remember thinking what's going to occupy the last 5 hours. Answer, not all that much. The last third is an excruciatingly detailed account of the law suits followed by a painfully long winded account of what happened to the key figures for the next 15 years.

Some people might like it, but it's almost like two books. The first part is mystery with lots of anticipation towards the actual event. The rest could have been summarized in a sentence. When something like this happens there are going to be lots of lawsuits, and the people who survived it are going to be pretty screwed up for a while.

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Tragic Story Told in a Well Written Book!

I still have 2.5 hours left on this book, but I need to write this review now. This is a remarkably well-researched and well-written book.

While I do have a background that is closely related to several professions that are the subject matter of this book I feel, regardless of your background or profession, you will like this book if you have a higher functioning technical, linear, or artistic mind. This is a densely packed heavy book when it comes to the technical, legal, and medical so if you have low or slow cognitive skills you will very likely not enjoy this book. Most of the technical will elude you and you will, therefore, hate this book because you simply will never understand the points being made in it. This isn't fiction and if that's what you usually read because you like happy endings, to escape reality, or you don't like to be upset by real life issues then it's best you avoid this one.

My only criticism; there was a little bit too much character background development early on, in particular about DJ. That could just be the author's writing style or, perhaps, his attempt to make the story flow more like fiction to avoid making it read like a technical manual. While that portion of the book may have added a small amount of time and not produced much substance it didn't detract from the book enough to cause me to dislike it.

I typically only read / listen to non-fiction books and this is in my top three favorites. I will listen to it again! Usually while I listen during the day I will Google the places described to get a better feel for the reality. In this case, I was not able to do that until over halfway through and when I did I was blown away by how well the descriptions provided in the book matched the actual photographs and drawings I found online. Look up "Deer Island Tunnel Accident". I was very impressed with the author when the vision I developed in my mind from the way he described something so closely matched the real images. Finally, the narration was outstanding. Not over-dramatic and not monotone. He had just the right cadence and tone.

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  • Bill
  • Vancouver, WA, United States
  • 02-20-14

This stinks

This book wasn’t for you, but who do you think might enjoy it more?

I thought it would be a book like Shadow Divers. It isn't. The Amazon review compared it to The Perfect Storm. No comparison. A bunch of background crap about the divers is all it is. It's trite and poorly written.

What do you think your next listen will be?

No idea.

How did the narrator detract from the book?

He was barely adequate

What character would you cut from Trapped Under the Sea?

The author. Do not believe the reviews. This is a stinker.

Any additional comments?

Don't buy this book. I have never written a negative review but this is so awful I had to warn people about it.

4 of 26 people found this review helpful