Sunday, January 01, 2006

Lake Washington "time machine" hooks divers

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The Seattle Times
By Erik Lacitis
Seattle Times staff reporter


Matt McCauley, right, and Jeff Hummel
at McCauley's Mercer Island home in 1984,
after the two hauled up the remains of a
Curtiss SB2C-1A Helldiver bomber.

The latest secret from the bottom of Lake Washington showed itself at midmorning this past Halloween Day, appearing as glowing bronze sonar images on a monitor.

The two divers who had been methodically surveying the lake on their aluminum workboat just north of Kirkland knew they'd hit the jackpot: a World War II torpedo bomber that had gone down in a training exercise over the lake in 1942.

By the next weekend, Crayton Fenn and John Sharps had dived 200 feet to the wreck and videotaped what they then would announce was the heavily damaged — it's in several pieces — remains of a Grumman TBF-1 Avenger. They were rightfully proud.

"It's thrilling. You're the first person in the world who ever made a dive on it," said Sharps, 31, a Microsoft manager.

"It's the thrill of exploration, of solving its mystery."

For most area residents, Lake Washington is known for what it shows on its surface: two floating bridges crawling with cars at rush-hour, partying crowds at the annual hydroplane races, sailboats, water-skiers, beautiful vistas with of Mount Rainier in the background.

Crayton Fenn helped find a torpedo bomber.

But to some two dozen divers, with a hard-core group of maybe a half-dozen, it's what lies at the bottom of the 18-½-mile-long lake that fascinates them: scores of boats, planes and what once was garbage but now would be collectibles.

Most of the divers are associated with three local nonprofit groups that have documented the various treasures at the bottom of Pacific Northwest waters.

With sonar-equipped rigs and high-intensity lights that cut through the pitch darkness at lower depths, they revel in finding artifacts.

"Lake Washington is like a time machine. It's almost like being Indiana Jones. It's an incredible thrill," said Matt McCauley of Kirkland. In 1984, at age 19, he and a buddy gained notoriety by using their ski boat to pull up a discarded Navy bomber at the northeast corner of the lake near Juanita Point.

"You can find old bottles from as back as 1870," McCauley said. "The last person who touched it was living when Native Americans were still on the embankment of the lake. You feel a compulsion to show it to everybody."

From garbage to collectible
At the bottom of Lake Washington, there are seven documented military aircraft, all Navy planes once based at the old Sand Point Naval Air Station. Local experts such as Fenn and Bob Mester, who use specialized sonar equipment to locate sunken historical treasures, said there are 100 to 300 vessels at the bottom, maybe more.

They include a 55-foot passenger steamer, a 137-foot schooner, a surplus 136-foot minesweeper and all kinds of other craft, from drag boats to sailboats.

Mester remembered a spring day in 1991 that he dived down 140 feet off of Sand Point and saw a Lockheed PV2-D Harpoon patrol bomber that had sunk in September 1947, when it went out of control during takeoff.

"There you see this fully armed World War II combat aircraft, its nose stuck in the bottom. The guns are pointing to the surface as if ready to fire right in front of you. You can touch the wheels in the tail and they spin perfectly," Mester said.

"And here it is, all in the middle of a recreation lake with Jet Skis above you and people fishing."

The bottom also holds 18 wooden coal cars, which went down in January 1875, when a stern-wheeler rounding Mercer Island was a hit by a windstorm (back then, coal from Newcastle was shipped to Seattle, with much of it then going to California). The coal cars sit 195 feet down just south of the middle of the Evergreen Point Bridge, many of them upright.

"They are still filled with coal, although the coal flakes in your hand when you pick it up," said Mark Tourtellot, 51.

At age 9, he began diving off Richmond Beach. Now he's co-owner of Fifth Dimension Dive Center in Issaquah and on the board of directors of Submerged Cultural Resources Exploration Team (SCRET), a nonprofit group that documents wreckage found in Pacific Northwest waters.

In his store, Tourtellot showed off items he has collected from the bottom of the lake, such as a J.G. Fox & Co. glass root-beer bottle from the early 1900s, found in 40 feet of water off of Leschi.

Then, he said, when ferries took passengers from Mercer Island to Seattle, it was common for Eastside residents to take their garbage and use wooden boxes or burlap bags and dump it into the lake. The old garbage now is a collectible.

The state Department of Natural Resources says it's OK for divers to take photos of such artifacts but not to touch or move them. But it acknowledges it's not equipped to enforce a state law saying treasures abandoned 30 years or more become untouchable state property.

The state did go after a Kirkland man who was eventually convicted of stealing a history of sorts in the early 1990s from the bottom of Lake Washington: trees that had sunk either when being transported from logging mills or that had been part of an ancient forest that ended up in the lake after landslides 1,000 to 3,000 years ago. The salvager had hired divers to cut the trees and bring them to a barge.

The Navy doesn't want its old planes brought up, either because they are gravesites containing human remains or because of fears about pillaging.

In 1985, the Navy did lose one court battle with McCauley and Jeff Hummel, then 20, who had brought up a Curtiss SB2C-1A Helldiver bomber a year earlier from 150 feet near Juanita Point.

The two had heard stories that the Navy would take useable parts of planes that had been in accidents, torch the planes for training in fire drills and then dump them in the lake. They decided to go looking for the wreckage.

"We and our friends took a 17-foot ski boat, a fish finder and sidescan sonar, and the plane showed up," McCauley remembered. The group pulled a 15-foot wing section and 10 feet of fuselage onto a boat ramp, and then towed it to McCauley's driveway. McCauley and Hummel thought they might break even on their efforts by selling the plane to a museum or collector.

Mostly, though, it was about the excitement of the search, and the find. "You feel like you've found a galleon full of treasure," McCauley said. "You're swimming on this eerie, muddy bottom, and all of a sudden you see a wall of burnt aluminum sticks": parts of an old fighter plane.

The judge ruled in favor of the two divers, telling the Navy to "back off a little" in its quest to protect planes it had junked. That plane and four other discarded hulks that McCauley, Hummel and fellow divers later brought up ended up with Minnesota and Pennsylvania collectors.

McCauley, 40, no longer dives as frequently; now that he's a husband and father, his wife isn't keen on 200-foot underwater explorations.

But a diver such as Mester, however, who has explored the lake more than 100 times in the past decade, isn't about to give it up. His three adult children also are divers. It never gets boring for him.

"The visibility is limited, maybe five, six, 10 feet," he said. "Another 10 feet, and it's all new."


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www.airplanes-underwater.blogspot.com

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