DOOMED TOWER AT SEA Presentation given by Chuck Zimmaro and Tom Roach May 30, 2008
By JULIET KASZAS-HOCH Deep below the ocean’s surface off the shoreline of New Jersey lie the slowly shifting remains of an enormous, unique structure – a submerged tower that has long held a fascination for divers and historians, as well as for those who lost a family member or friend to its ruin. “Eighty-five miles off the New Jersey coast is a wreck that ... rivals the Titanic in size, yet it is all but lost in the lore of sea disasters,” said Chuck Zimmaro during a presentation that he and fellow long-time diver Tom Roach gave at the Museum of New Jersey Maritime History in Beach Haven on Friday evening. This wreck, said museum curator Deborah Whitcraft at the start of the evening, was called Texas Tower 4. As Whitcraft introduced Roach and Zimmaro to the sizable crowd seated in the museum’s front room, she noted that both men have been diving and researching the underwater site for more than 30 years. Roach led the first organized charter dives to the tower, while Zimmaro was the designated mission specialist for submersible operations on two NOAA-funded expeditions to the wreck. On Friday, Zimmaro summarized the tale of Texas Tower 4. “The big wreck has all the elements of a great disaster-at-sea story. Human error exploited by nature at its cruelest. Gambles taken, and lost, in a sea that had turned predator. Rescuers on the horizon, but helpless against the elements. Personal tragedy compounded by bitter irony. “The one element missing from this wreck,” he continued, “is that it isn’t a ship; it was a huge, triangular-shaped radar platform that stood 90 feet above the ocean’s surface, supported by three 310-foot-long fuel legs deeply imbedded in deep sand on the ocean bottom in over 190 feet of water.” This platform, along with two other Texas Towers – named as such because of their resemblance to ocean oil-drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico – was created for the U.S. Air Force in the 1950s, around the time of the Cold War, to operate as radar sites meant to guard the country against possible attacks by the Soviets. Each tower was staffed by 70 men, both USAF and civilian. Forty-seven years ago, said Zimmaro, Texas Tower 4 “crashed into the storm-tossed Atlantic,” an event that claimed the lives of 28 men and turned the tower into “a massive underwater metal mountain.” In 2001, a team of divers, including Zimmaro, visited the submerged platform for a History Channel expedition, led by Academy Award and Emmy-winning underwater cinematographer Al Giddings. Also along for the excursion were two sons of men who were lost when Texas Tower 4 collapsed. It was “a very emotional trip,” said Zimmaro. The site, he added, is tough to get to and challenging to dive; the boat ride out to the site is eight hours long, and once there, “the currents were always swift,” and the temperatures at the ocean bottom cold. The site, though, is a worthwhile trip for wreck divers. “In the entire world, there’s only one Texas Tower, and it’s here, off Jersey,” said Zimmaro. The History Channel turned the footage from the expedition into a television program – the first time the site was documented for TV – that the presentation-goers at the museum watched after Zimmaro’s introduction, during which he called the tower “an engineering marvel.” Tower 4, a structure made almost entirely of steel and supported by hollow legs, was “remarkable for its time and for its place,” said Professor Robert Bea of the University of California, Berkeley, in the program. In fact, the footage showed that the living quarters were roomy, well lit and air-conditioned, with excellent food and amenities such as television, pool tables, ping-pong tables and a basketball court. But as the narrator pointed out, the tower – a “mini-city at sea” that stood in water twice as deep as that of its sister towers, and on thinner, more fragile legs – “was doomed before it was even finished. It was a disaster waiting to happen.” In the video, Zimmaro explains the difficulty in maintaining a structure that is supposed to be stable in such a non-stable environment. Texas Tower 4 did withstand a few strong storms and even hurricanes, but as time passed, the tower began to wobble more and more, earning it the nickname “Old Shaky.” “The Atlantic Ocean is a mean device,” remarked a man who had worked on the tower and lived to tell about it. Eventually, Texas Tower 4 had taken enough of a beating from the sea and storm winds that it was deemed a hazard. The Air Force decided to shut down the radar and leave a reduced crew of 28 men on the structure for a period of time, although the consensus among other groups was that all men should be evacuated sooner. Divers attempted to repair the legs of the tower, but without much success. At this point, the narrator explained, “the tower has become a living hell.” Jan. 14, 1961, dawned with ominous weather predictions. There was talk that the skeleton crew of Texas Tower 4 should be evacuated, but instead, the current commander of the site chose to keep the men at the structure, where they watched as boats, laden with equipment from the tower, steamed away. The next day, a huge nor’easter covered the tower platform in ice and sent waves the size of 10-story buildings crashing onto the deck. The structure began to fall apart in the 80 mph winds; the sound of clanging metal worsened as the storm did the same. A Coast Guard boat raced toward the structure to evacuate the men; along the way, the vessel was hit by a giant rogue wave, which the captain knew was headed in the direction of the tower. Another boat was closer to the site, and the captain of that ship watched as Texas Tower 4 blinked on his radar screen and then, suddenly, stopped blinking. The tower was gone; all 28 men were plunged into the icy water. A proper, effective rescue was impossible because of the rough seas. Later, as newspapers began to report that the radar setup had disappeared in the ocean, the bodies of just two men were found, along with the wallet of a third. “It could’ve been prevented,” claimed Bea near the end of the TV program.
After the video, audience memberRobert Murken, who had walked the decks of Texas Tower 4 when he was a petty officer in the Coast Guard, said of the structure, “It was beautiful.” But the crew, he noted, “said it was shaky.”
Roach explained that when he first dove the huge, spectacular wreck of the tower when it was still largely intact, “it was like everybody just walked off. But it was tilted,” and he sometimes spotted 20-pound lobsters walking around on what is essentially the gravesite of a unique piece of New Jersey’s maritime history. Zimmaro and Roach both dove with the Eastern Divers Association, one of the principal diving organizations in the 1960s and ’70s. Roach, the EDA president, has been diving since 1969 – to a great extent along the Eastern Seaboard – and is now a commercial diver. Over the years, Roach has given presentations at various conferences and clinics, and he has penned numerous articles for Skin Diver magazine, as has Zimmaro, who has also written for, and submitted drawings and photographs to, Sport Diver, Scuba Times, Northeast Dive News, Sea Classics and other publications. Zimmaro began diving in 1966, and he has shared his years of diving experience as a certified scuba instructor who has taught classes at a number of universities. He has also appeared on the History Channel's Modern Marvels and Time Machine. The Museum of New Jersey Maritime History, located at the corner of Dock Road and West Avenue in Beach Haven, is open daily, from 10 a.m. until 7 p.m., throughout the summer. More presentations will be announced in the future. Juliet firstname.lastname@example.org