PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh District divers wear 32-pound helmets and thick suits to keep dry under water, yet even those metal domes and waterproof suits won’t shield them from a few brotherly jabs.
“Oh, you’ve gotta have thick skin,” said Rick Harp about his fellow teammates within the Pittsburgh District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “Because you’re going to get ribbed a lot. Generally, you’ll see those who take the most are prior military.”
Harp is a former cavalry scout with the U.S. Army. Of the 15 divers assigned to the Pittsburgh District, several are military veterans or still serving in a reserve component.
“It’s a tight unit,” said Peter McDowell, a former artillery crew member for the Army. “We beat each other up pretty good. But this is part of the brotherhood. If you’ve been in the military, you know what that’s like.”
In addition to military service, most members also have a nickname. McDowell is “The Jerk” because he jokingly calls everyone else a jerk, so the nickname was tossed back at him and stuck.
The only one without a nickname is Peter Gerovac, who serves as a dive supervisor on missions.
“It’s too late to give me a nickname. I’m the old dude. I bite back,” Gerovac said.
His primary responsibility is to keep divers alive underwater. He does this while juggling a clipboard and a radio, managing the team, communicating with the lock staff, and monitoring the divers’ depths, all while answering questions about the program.
“I just told you about that, about bothering the dive supervisor when divers are in the water,” said Jay Kochuga, the dive program coordinator and a trained diver since 2009, scolding someone for talking to Gerovac on the job.
Kochuga, or Super Jay, has been the coordinator for three years, in charge of the entire diver program for Pittsburgh.
“Ah don’t worry about what Jay says, because you know what, I used to drive, talk on the radio, take fire, run a Blue Force Tracker, call out targets [all at once]. This is nothing. This is a walk in the park,” Gerovac, a U.S. Marine veteran with three combat tours, jabbed back.
“Nobody is safe from the razzing,” Kochuga said. “But when push comes to shove, whenever you’re in the water, there’s only [our team] you can rely on.”
A supervisor, two tenders and two divers form each team. The dive tenders are responsible for feeding the umbilical to give more length or pull back as each diver moves around the water.
Four cables make up the umbilical that together provide compressed air from the surface, communication and water depth gauging.
Kochuga not only coordinates missions for 15 divers, but he also oversees all diving operations within the Pittsburgh District riverways, whether commercial or military. In uniform, Kochuga serves as an instructor for the U.S. Army Reserve, teaching at various noncommissioned officer academies.
Two men, nicknamed Six and Little Weirdo, inspected a lock and dam on the Monongahela River in the water below. The water was a deep green, covered in piles of bobbing trash. One of the divers uses his arms to splash away floating debris to clear a path.
Having tough skin is not just a matter of taking on brotherly bruisings. It’s an overall part of the job, Kochuga said.
“We do it because there’s only 15 of us in the entire district of volunteers who step up and say, ‘Hey, I’ll be a diver’ knowing they’re going to go into dark, cold, small places and do the job in nasty waters,” he said.
The week prior, a team dove in water contaminated with sewage overflow. Often, the water is cold and visibility is low.
Kochuga’s team conducts periodic inspections every other week on all three major rivers surrounding Pittsburgh, ensuring the lock and dam systems work as designed. They annotate any damage or wear and tear that needs attention. During an inspection, they swim to the dam checking the cutoff wall and assessing the cavity under the dam. They examine the gates for structural stability and ensures gates open and close freely without obstruction. They also assess dams at 16 flood-control reservoirs operated by the district.
“It’s very important to continue the mission for the Corps to keep the infrastructure in proper shape,” said McDowell.
The locks are old and aging rapidly, many of them more than a hundred years and still running. Without proper inspection to see what’s underneath the water and constant maintenance, they wouldn’t last, said McDowell.
Sometimes an emergency mission comes up, causing Kochuga to assemble a team of divers to respond quickly. He needs at least five divers to perform a mission.
“Our guarantee is that we can be anywhere in the district within four hours to fix the problem. You’ll never be able to get a diving contractor to do this that fast,” said Kochuga.
For example, a 16-foot tree log jammed into one of the locks on the Ohio River in April. The divers used an underwater chainsaw to help cut out the log and then bore a hole with a specially fabricated 4-foot drill bit so they could attach a cable to pull the log out.
Kochuga estimated that the Pittsburgh District saves tens of thousands of dollars for every five weeks of scheduled dives by having a dedicated team, versus outsourcing the work. Not every district across the Army Corps of Engineers has a dive team.
“Our guys are not just divers. They work at these facilities every day, so they’re intimately familiar with the ins and outs of our operations,” he said.
Kochuga is the only full-time member. The rest have other positions within the district, such as lockmasters, mechanics, resource managers, or others. They volunteer to take part in the program as a collateral duty and receive additional pay.
“If you do it for the money, there’s not enough to justify the duty. You have to enjoy it,” Kochuga said. “Everybody loves what they do.”
Some divers plan family vacations around the dive schedule to ensure they are available when needed, he said.
If accepted into the program, divers train at the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Houston, the same facility where NASA astronauts train underwater. The initial training is three weeks, with an additional requirement to complete a two-week refresher every four years.
“You ever seen Armageddon? We get to swim in the pool with astronauts. That’s pretty cool,” said Kochuga.
Although there is a strong demand for divers, not every volunteer is selected. Before being admitted into the program, prospective divers must receive an Open Water Diver certification, paid out of pocket. The certification can cost approximately $500 to attain. The course is taught by a commercial scuba instructor, consisting of four-night classes, a dive test, and a written exam to complete. District employees who want to join the program require supervisor approval.
It is an added duty, but one that comes with a calling, according to Harp.
“Not everybody can do what we do, and you can feel good about it. After a day of diving, it gives you a sense of purpose,” said Harp.