Michael Smart, former commercial diver and author of “Into the Lion’s Mouth: The Story of the Wildrake Diving Accident“, takes us through the background and significance leading up to the publishing of his book. We also have a special giveaway – a signed copy of his book! Check the details at the end of this interview to enter.
Why do you believe that out of all the incidents you’ve heard over your commercial diving career, Wildrake stood out to you above everything else?
The Wildrake accident stuck in my mind because it was the first time I came face to face with the fact that divers were actually dying on the job. No one thinks about death when they’re going through dive school. But at the time of the accident, in August 1979, I was on a barge in the Ninian Field when I overheard several men outside the radio room commenting that two Infabco divers had just died in a bell accident in the Thistle Field, 30 miles north. I was new to the industry and didn’t know anything about the circumstances. But the news of that accident had a lasting effect upon me.
Later, I saw a group of experienced divers discussing the accident, and the look on their faces, and the way they reacted, indicated to me that they felt something was not right. Seventeen years later, in the midst of my research, I discovered why these divers were so upset.
From what point of view did you write “Into the Lion’s Mouth”?
During my investigation, as I began to fully understand what had happened to Richard Walker and Skip Guiel, I decided I wanted to attract the largest audience possible to the issues involved, because I believed then, as I do now, that this story really has nothing to do with diving at all. It’s about injustice, right versus wrong, criminal negligence, and people making shameful decisions based upon greed and corruption.
How all of these elements came together at precisely the right moment to kill Richard and Skip is the subject of the book and something that I think people of all walks of life would be interested in, not just commercial divers.
So the general public became my target audience. That meant that I had to introduce the reader to an industry that they were probably not familiar with, so I decided to present the material in a non-technical way from Richard and Skip’s point of view; how they became interested in commercial diving, why they went to the North Sea, and ultimately how they became trapped in a diving bell on the bottom of the North Sea at 500 feet.
What were some of the challenges involved in writing “Into the Lion’s Mouth”?
In the beginning the challenges were overwhelming. I had no formal writing background — no clue what was involved in writing and publishing a book. But I did have one thing going for me: a burning desire to tell this story, which enabled me to keep my ass in the chair for nine years. It’s a complex story, but along the way, through self-education, I discovered the power of words, and that any issue, no matter how complex, can be broken down and explained using clarity.
But clarity came slowly.
For the first six months of writing, I was lost — marooned in my computer chair. I didn’t know how to say what I wanted to say. I had no “Voice.” I had to pinch my nose to read what I had written.
This is because I was too self-conscience about what was rolling around in my mind, and what was pouring out of the keyboard. Emotionally I was compelled.
But subconsciously, I really wanted to write this story anonymously – meaning: I didn’t want anyone to bloody know who I was, what I felt, and what I thought. Holy cow! Ridiculous! What unbelievable bunk! (Childhood phobias were erupting.)
I later learned, after reading a couple of books (by Strunk and Kilpatrick), that it is impossible to write anything without revealing something about yourself. You can’t do it. I now look back on this phenomenon and laugh, but prior to this epiphany, I was terrified. So, eventually, Strunk and Kilpatrick convinced me to lay my anxieties aside and spit it all out. So I did.
I also quickly realized that I had to document what happened; otherwise no one was going to believe what I was piecing together. I learned from Richard and Skip’s relatives that the Scottish Court System had conducted a public inquiry into the accident.
I managed to obtain the judge’s findings of that inquiry, which painted a shocking summary of the accident. It was just a summary, but it was specific enough for me to suspect that Richard and Skip’s deaths were not as a result of a “pure” accident. So I committed myself to the idea of producing a book. Easier said than done.
Because I wanted to write a detailed step-by-step account, I knew I had to have two things: the log of the fatal dive and the verbatim transcript of the public inquiry. A lot of time had passed and I didn’t know if they still existed.
Fortunately, I managed to get both. If I hadn’t then it would have been folly for me to attempt the book. So it was these two crucial documents that enabled me to establish an accurate timeline and describe what happened based upon the dive log and the testimony of the witnesses.
At the same time I began tracking down the Wildrake and Stena Welder rescue divers, many of them in England and the United States. I needed their emotional and professional input to fill the gaps of the official record. There was no real internet in the 1990’s, so finding the divers was a real challenge because nearly all of them had moved.
The relatives of Richard and Skip were very helpful in giving me copies of old Infabco call-out sheets with addresses. So I started with the old addresses and went from there locating those that I could find.
Another challenge was that the scope of the story kept growing.
Initially, I thought I would be reporting on a single diving accident. But, because I was writing for the general public, it became apparent that I had to describe the economic and political situation in Great Britain at the time, and how UK government policy played a role in creating the North Sea oil industry.
I also wanted to bring the reader up to speed on the environmental conditions of the North Sea and the omnipresence of danger in the work environment, so I included other diving accidents that were occurring during those early years. And then, much later, I discovered that a weak regulatory regime contributed to the accident. So I included that material as well, which is why the book continued to grow in length.
This book covers the real story of a saturation diving accident. How did your experience in saturation diving help you write this book?
Looking back, I think my personal experience was critical. I knew about the working conditions in the North Sea; what it was like to dive out of a bell at 600 feet, the smell of the chamber, the claustrophobia, procedures for recovery, and what was considered acceptable practice and what was not.
If I didn’t have this experience I don’t think the relatives, or the Wildrake divers, would have talked to me.
In your preface, you mention the psychological toll taken on commercial divers, given the omnipresent danger they often work in. During your time working in this industry, was it common for divers to receive therapy?
No, not at all.
By the time a diver enters a saturation chamber, he, and his colleagues, knows whether he should be there or not.
Have you authored any other books besides this one, or thought about doing so?
I did actually begin work on the Bradley Westell case, a diver that was dragged through one of the thrusters of the DSV Orelia in 1995. This was another case where a cascade of failures caused a fatality. In the aftermath there was a criminal trial, and I managed to purchase the Transcript of Evidence in London. I spent six months analyzing the testimony to determine what had happened, and even reconstructed a timeline.
Unfortunately, I discovered that the Black Box Video of the dive had been altered (a crucial segment had been erased) which produced a terrific gap in the record. After a lot of thought I decided that that missing information would lead to too much confusion and guess work, so I abandoned the project.
I’m now working on another writing project, which I will announce in about a year (if I can keep my ass in the chair).
How do you believe “Into the Lion’s Mouth” has helped change the way people look at the commercial diving industry?
I wasn’t sure what impact this story would have.
But after nine years, I’d reached the point where I needed an outside opinion of the work I’d done because when a person works alone, without any guidance, it’s quite possible for him to become myopic and lose sight of what he wants to say. So I chose to reveal the story to Mark Longstreath. He was someone I didn’t know, but I did know he was trusted and respected in the diving community.
I established contact with him through his website, Longstreath.com, and he agreed to read the book and offer his thoughts. A few days after I sent it to him I had his answer:
I managed to start reading the book this morning and haven’t been able to put it down all day. Wife and kids have been forgotten, while it took me back to the days when I started diving.
Initially I thought I would be objective and try to see if there were any errors that I could pick out and pass on to you, but as I read on I became so wound up in the story that I could not take any notes. I have had emotions ranging from apprehension, incredulity, anger, disbelief and disgust, and I still have not finished. One thing I can say at this point is that this story has to be published, and spread amongst the diving world.
I will gladly help advertise it through my site once it is out. Thanks very much for giving me the privilege of reading it Mike.
Thanks to Mark, people all over the world are reading the story. And from time to time I get comments from readers.
About a year ago I received an email from an Irish diving supervisor who told me how the story affected him, and that, when he goes offshore and feels the pressure is on to cut corners to get the job done, he thinks about Richard and Skip, which puts his mind in the right frame to push back. If their story can have that kind of impact on the people who work at the sharp end, then I’m satisfied.
Michael Smart, author of “Into The Lion’s Mouth: The Story of the Wildrake Diving Accident” is an ex-North Sea diver who worked for Sub Sea International. After leaving the diving industry, he owned his own business and worked all over the world as an AUT weld inspector. He currently lives in the United States and is masquerading as a goat farmer.
Giveaway Michael is giving away 1 free, signed copy of “Into The Lion’s Mouth: The Story of the Wildrake Diving Accident”. Rules: To enter into the giveaway, include a comment or question in the comment section below related to Michael Smart and his book. One winner will be chosen in a drawing and contacted through email. Deadline: July 10, 11:59 pm (CST).