It’s a sunny, warm day in Portland, but Pat Joseph’s office below the surface of the Willamette River is a crisp 55 degrees, with a visibility level that fluctuates from a few feet to “you can’t even see your hands in front of your face.”
Joseph, 34, doesn’t mind, though. A wetsuit pumped full of warm water is among the perks of a job in commercial diving, and who needs crystal clear waters when you’re paid to keep your eyes on a wall of steel sheeting all day?
“I’ve never dived in the Gulf, but I heard that water’s beautiful down there,” Joseph said Wednesday, before plunging into the Willamette with a handful of epoxy putty.
When passers-by look down upon Multnomah County’s $307.5-million project to rebuild the Sellwood Bridge, they’ll see dozens of construction workers milling about on the work bridge below. But a small team of divers remain out of sight below the water’s surface.
They play a small but integral role in the massive project: Doing the work that can only be done with your head underwater and an air tank strapped to your back.
“It’s fun,” Joseph says. “It’s always fun.”
Sealing Sellwood Bridge
On this day, four divers work on one of two “box caissons,” a 108-foot-long, 22-foot-wide steel and concrete box that’s partially submerged in the river, creating a watertight area where construction crews can install steel rebar and pour concrete below the water’s surface.
They’ve been working on the project for months, drilling holes and welding the caisson together while swimming 20 feet underwater.
For the past few days, they’ve been busy plugging leaks in the caisson’s walls, aiming to make the box as watertight as possible so landlubbing construction workers can work inside. A high-capacity water pump, which sucks river water from inside the caisson and shoots it over the wall and back into the river, will do the rest.
“Our part may not necessarily be the hugest part of the job, but it’s important,” says Jake Galstad, the lead diver on the four-man crew from Pasco-based Cascade Dive Company.
Ultimately, the divers will help dismantle the caisson and the remaining concrete pier cap will hold up the steel arches that support the bridge’s roadway.
On this afternoon, Joseph will dive while his three colleagues support him from a barge parked next to the caisson.
Working construction in the dark and suffocating depths of the Willamette requires a lot of hands.
Jake Galstad’s older brother Gary, 32, monitors Joseph’s work on a television screen that receives footage from the camera strapped to Joseph’s helmet.
Meanwhile, Rollin Pick, 23, plays gopher. He provides Joseph with a constant supply of the epoxy putty he’ll use to seal leaks in the caisson’s steel sheet walls. He makes sure there’s enough slack on Joseph’s “umbilical cord.” That’s what they call the thick braid of ropes that attaches a commercial diver’s suit to his air source, communication line, and hot water tube.
Commercial diving can be dangerous, but the divers say they don’t get scared. They know their colleagues are trained to prevent emergencies, and respond quickly if something bad happens.
As Joseph dons his diving helmet and prepares to jump into the river, his voice comes through a bullhorn that towers over the barge on a pole. With Darth Vader’s raspy monotone, he requests more supplies. It’s hard to make out what he’s saying, but Rollins’ ear is well trained.
“A new wire brush and a backer rod?”
Joseph’s “Roger,” comes through clearly this time. The rhythmic sawing of his breath continues over the loudspeaker.
The men recognize their job is unusual. But they see little difference between themselves and the average construction worker.
“Sometimes you go down to seal, sometimes you go down to pressure wash all day, sometimes you’re just dredging with a backhoe, sucking mud all day,” says Joseph, whose home is in The Dalles.
The difference is that other construction workers don’t have to don nearly 100 pounds of gear and breathe through a tube to get the job done. They also don’t see salmon, sturgeon and suckerfish floating past while they work.
Jake and Gary Galstad settled upon diving while looking for opportunities to follow their pipe-fitter dad into the construction trades. Joseph and Pick both followed in the footsteps of their fathers, who are also commercial divers. In such a niche career, family associations are typical.
The men say that camaraderie – brothers working together, crew members who become close friends – makes job’s travel requirements more bearable.
The Sellwood Bridge project is a relatively shallow one in the world of commercial diving. Jake Galstad’s deepest job was at the Merwin Dam in Washington, when he went 180 feet below surface to install a. Divers spent most of their time adjusting to the water pressure.
The divers carry knives at all times. They use the blades to cut ropes, but more than anything, the knife is an insurance policy.
“Just in case you need to get yourself free,” Joseph says.
They also wear a backup air tank, known as a “bail out bottle,” on their backs.
“We don’t breath off of those unless something was to go wrong,” Pick says.
The essential equipment of underwater construction includes tools you’d expect to see in any construction worker’s belt: a measuring tape, a writing utensil, maybe a spud wrench.
Other tools are more advanced. On the Sellwood job, the divers used torches designed to produce fire underwater.
“It’s pretty simple,” Jake Galstad says. “You just have to hold it a little closer to the metal than you would on land.”