Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Trapped Under the Sea by Neil Swidey *****

The smartest guy in the room will kill you. Trapped Under the Sea by Neil Swidey is a cautionary tale of how engineers can cause disasters and death.

In this chronicle of misplaced faith in technology and technologists, Swidey details the circumstances leading the to inevitable death of two divers under Boston Harbor and the subsequent impact on the survivors. The "trapped under the sea" part is just a small interlude between the causes and effects.

The project is a ten mile long tunnel to delivery treated sewage out into the harbor. The myriad players -- Federal judge, contractors, OSHA, MWRA (Mass Water Resources Authority) -- are deadlocked. Swidey does an excellent job delving into the individual players, their personal and organizational motivations. These characters drive the story and make this book an exciting page turner, even though everyone knows the result is going to be a disaster, where the divers pay the ultimate price for the difficulties and inadequacies of their superiors.

Into this impasse comes Harald Grob - the smartest guy in the room. Like many engineers, Harald is a mixture of optimism,  innovation, and arrogance with a minimum of social skills. When the bristly technologist comes up with a solution to everyone's problem, no one questions him. Several try, mostly divers with their lives at stake, but no one succeeds. He defends his position are omniscient, genius savior (many engineers live for the role) through condescending sarcasm and half truths.

This is the cautionary tale that is hit home when the deaths force questions to be answered and time discloses the breadth of damage caused by the risks taken. Ironically, after the deaths, the impasse is solved with a different engineering solution that is easier, cheaper, and safer.

The first half of the story is dominated by the string of technical and political miscalculations leading the the disaster. The second half deals with the aftermath. Especially touching is the PTSD of the surviving divers. Sadly, the innocent divers who barely escaped, had their lives ruined, while the organizations and managers who shirked their responsibilities, recovered and prospered. A cautionary tale for all, but especially for the people on the front line who are potential victims of people taking risks with their lives.

Swidey is a journalist. This is an exciting story told through the lives the people involved and impacted by these events. Research and reporting at its best, and an excellent read.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on January 15, 2014. I received the book on February 1, 2014.

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