Often a dirty job, commercial diving is not without its treasures

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Eighth in a series

The three questions people always ask Josh Gostomski when they learn he’s a commercial diver are: “Can you weld under water? You must make a lot of money, huh? And are there any really big fish down there?”

He answers: yes, no, and absolutely.

Fish like shiny things, he said. The sparkle of a helmet, a water tank, the diver’s buckle are irresistible to them. So it’s not uncommon for Mr. Gostomski to come face to face with a large catfish, inspecting his work, “just looking at you, like, ‘Hey, what’s up, whatcha doin’ over there?’ ”

That’s a good day, when inland commercial divers such as Mr. Gostomski get to work in water that is clear enough to see their spectators. Then there are gigs that involve spending hours submerged in sewage, feeling their way through the opaque swirl of feces to clean the pumps at the bottom of a huge tank at the Allegheny County Sanitation Authority.

The work isn’t always glamorous, but no two days are the same, he said.

Mr. Gostomski, a diving supervisor with New Brighton-based Marion Hill Associates, has pulled excavators out of ponds and body parts out of the Hudson River.

Never poke a floating dead body, he cautioned. The smell would be unbearable.

He was among a team of divers who in 2008 searched, unsuccessfully, for a B-25 Air Force bomber that went down in the Monongahela River six decades ago, spawning rumors of twilight espionage missions and even alien coverups.

“You can see the world diving,” Mr. Gostomski said.

Living like nomads

That’s how Richard Riley, president of Marion Hill, got his start. Diving in New York, then in Haiti, he saw how many divers lived — like nomads, severed for long periods from their families. When he returned to his native Western Pennsylvania in 1980, he decided to start a local shop that would employ divers who could be home in time for dinner.

The company now has 15 divers and specializes in infrastructure maintenance and repair and marine construction.

Nearly anything that happens in or near liquid requires divers. Bridges, tunnels, construction, sewage tanks, potable water reservoirs, power plants.

Marine construction has taken on a greater chunk of Marion Hill’s business in recent years, said Gwynn Riley, business development coordinator and son of the company’s founder. Even as oil and gas rigs have idled and coal mines shuttered across Appalachia, industrial sites along the region’s rivers are ramping up infrastructure improvements — shaping up and building out in anticipation of the energy industry’s comeback.

Typically, Marion Hill’s busy season is April through October. But lately, energy-related and other industrial activity has kept pace even in winter months.

“We’re as busy now as we were in June,” Mr. Riley said.

‘I’ve been stuck in pipes before’

There’s a great rift between the stereotyped notion of a professional diver — gliding through crystal clear water, spiraled by brightly colored fish, pulling gold coins from a sunken treasure chest — and what inland commercial divers do on a daily basis.

For one, much of their work involves feeling, rather than seeing, their target, which is often a pipe or a valve. Frequently, it involves tight spaces.

“I’ve been stuck in pipes before,” Mr. Gostomski said.

He’s lost his air source and had to rely on the backup tank that all divers have to lug around with them, making them 30 pounds heavier and more exhausted.

Sometimes, Marion Hill divers have to break a hole through the ice to get into frigid water.

And while any job has its share of crap, the company’s divers have spent about a year alternately capping each of the six pumps at the bottom of an Alcosan sewage well, which warehouses all the raw material flowing into the facility every day. There’s no way to empty the tank to clean the pumps, so the divers have to manually plug each one so the sanitation authority can work on it while the others pick up the slack.

The pay, also, doesn’t measure up to what many might imagine. At Marion Hill, divers start at around $18 per hour and work their way up to a salaried position of about $75,000 a year as field supervisors.

Offshore work can be more lucrative with ample overtime pay.

Building foundations

Still, Marion Hill divers have left their fingerprints on the history of the region, and places within a 500-mile radius of here. In 1999, they helped build the foundations of PNC Park and Heinz Field. In 2010, they planted 100,000 native plants along the bed of the Hudson River.

It’s a young person’s profession, Mr. Riley said.

“It seems to be anyone over 40 tends to be in management, and that’s for a reason.”

Besides the physical demands, mental stamina is required in equal measure.

“Some of them are happy to get out of the water,” Mr. Riley said. And “some of the guys, at 60 years old, they want to show the 20-year-old divers how it’s done.”

 

 

 

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