Tragedy at sea

Medford resident's book details the terrifying deaths of deep sea divers
Michael Smart, left, is pictured on a ship in the North Sea during his early years as diver. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie LuschJamie Lusch

Each time Michael Smart stood on the sea floor, he felt like the first man stepping onto the surface of the moon.

"I loved working on the bottom of the ocean," recalls the former deep sea diver. "You are all alone. You feel like you are the only person in the universe.

"It's the same kind of feeling Neil Armstrong must of had," adds the Medford resident.

Yet, like a space mission, each dive to the ocean floor was also fraught with danger, as Smart, 61, demonstrates in his book, "Into the Lion's Mouth: The Story of the Wildrake Diving Accident."

The self-published, 379-page book tells the true story of the deaths of fellow divers Richard Walker, 33, and Victor "Skip" Guiel, Jr., 28, in the North Sea off Scotland on Aug. 8, 1979.

The book takes the reader down into the black depths with Walker and Guiel as they descend in a diving bell below the mother ship Wildrake on what should have been a routine 524-foot descent for the British National Oil Corporation. The book relates how incompetence and negligence by their superiors led to the accident.

What's more, a botched rescue effort resulted in the two veteran divers being trapped for 17 hours in the bell, ultimately dying of hypothermia, the book concludes.

Smart, who was on another diving rig not far away in the North Sea that day, knows of what he writes.

"We were not cowboys," he stresses of the divers. "We were not thrill- seekers. We took our work very seriously."

Although Smart did not personally know Walker and Guiel, he knew intimately their world and the vital importance of safety in each step of a dive.

"The danger divers face is only mitigated by the amount of safety people apply to their jobs," particularly when it comes to "sat" diving, he says, referring to saturation diving, in which the divers are kept in a pressurized area for an extended period so they can continue diving instead of being depressurized after each dive.

Born in England, where his father was stationed with the U.S. Air Force, Smart earned a degree in biology from the University of California-Irvine, then took up scuba diving in 1969. He quickly became a scuba instructor.

While scuba diving in the Philippines in 1975, he met two commercial oil field divers who told him about their chosen profession, including the dangers and the big bucks — up to $500 a day in the late 1970s.

Smart returned to California, where he would graduate from the same commercial diving school Guiel attended. In August of 1979, he was on a barge in the Ninian oil field in the North Sea, about 30 miles south of the Thistle oil field where Walker and Guiel died.

"That was the first time I realized there was the very real potential to die," Smart recalls of learning of their deaths.

He would dive into the depths of the North Sea commercial oil fields from 1979 until 1986, once diving as deep as 635 feet below the surface.

In 1986, he bought a picturesque old farm house on 35 acres near Medford and earned his teaching credentials. Unable to find a local job teaching, he worked for a local computer business, then opened his own computer business.

However, he went back offshore as a weld inspector from 2003 to 2009, working for a Dutch firm. He traveled the world over, from Brazil to Russia and the Middle East.

"I was sick of always being away," he says. "I didn't have a social life at all. You go through girlfriends because you're away all the time."

Through it all, he never forgot about the two divers who died in the North Sea in late summer of 1979. Beginning in 1995, Smart began working on the book.

"I quit my job and shut my business down," he says. "I devoted full time to it. For me, it is a story about right and wrong that had to be written."

He acquired the all-important dive log and the transcript of the testimony given during the subsequent investigation. His conclusion, backed by numerous documents and testimony, is that the accident was caused by those in power pushing divers to work without properly-operating equipment and without required safety backups. Moreover, they made several crucial mistakes in what should have been a fairly routine rescue effort and refused to spend the money necessary to save the men, he concluded.

The well-written book, which costs $30, can be ordered through Smart's website, lionsmouthpublishing.com.

"This book finally puts to rest the great anger and sense of helplessness I have felt for 32 years," Jeanne Walker, 57, widow of Richard Walker, told the Mail Tribune.

"Michael's relentless pursuit of the truth and his irrefutable documentation expose the dealings leading up to the fatal event, the chilling details of the incident as it unfolded and the long years of cruel 'legal' process as they avoided accepting blame," she says.

"The men responsible can no longer hide behind a corporate shield or a clever legal team," she adds. "They brutally killed two wonderful, loving, competent young men and left scars that will never heal on our hearts. ...These men should have been prosecuted for criminally negligent homicide, at minimum. Instead, they walked away free men."

Jeanne Walker still lives in Hollister Ranch, Calif., the place her husband rushed to the moment each diving job was completed in the North Sea. The couple's only child, Marisa, is now 33, married and has a young daughter of her own.

"This book is a powerful thing — it has given them all their rightful and permanent places in history," Jeanne says.

As a former diver, Smart can tell you about the allure that drew Walker and Guiel to the profession.

"When you are down there, you can hear the hum of the ship's thruster up above," he says. "The other noise you hear is your breathing, which sounds like you are on life support. The bell is about 40 feet above, casting a soft glow down on the sea bed."

Just beyond the bell there is nothing but darkness.

"You have a little head lamp on your helmet — you only see about five feet around you," he says.

And there is the ever-present danger beyond the occasional wolf eel and other toothy creatures of the deep.

"One time, a 10-ton lift bag blew off at 600 feet," he recalls. "It broke a brand-new, three-quarter inch wire. It took off for the surface.

"I had so many lines down there and one of the hoses caught my umbilical and was taking me up," he adds of the life line divers depend on for air and heated water to keep them warm. "On the way up, it released me. That was my scariest moment."

Rocketing to the surface instead of spending long hours in a decompression chamber would have meant his death.

He recalls the time in 1980 when he was returning from the North Sea with a bad case of the jitters.

"When I got back to the States, my hands were shaking and I had developed a nervous tick in my eye," he says. "It was fear from all the dangerous stuff we had been doing.

"I remember thinking the whole profession was like the guy in the circus who sticks his head into the lion's mouth," he adds. "He doesn't know whether the lion is going to close his mouth and kill him."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.



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