The History

Professional Divers

“IT WAS AS TIGHT A PLACE AS I HAD BEEN IN. And then I made another discovery. My air tube had fouled, too, and I couldn’t breathe. I was down there alone without air. It was up to me to live or die." -- Charles Gunderson, diver

Professional deep-sea divers were key in rescue and recovery because they could explore the hull of the Eastland in ways other responders couldn't. Equipped with underwater breathing apparatus, these divers could stay underwater for extended periods of time.

Over the course of days, the divers donned their diving suits and plunged into the Chicago River, weighed down by lead-soled shoes, helmets, and slugs of lead over a shoulder or around the waist. Their work required considerable skill and was filled with hazards. They fought their way through the heaps of water-logged scrap in "the hull of death" – picnic baskets, parasols, pop cases, clothes, dolls, and teddy bears – items that were intended for picnicking and merrymaking.

While the divers were busy down below, the activity on the surface of the river in support of the divers was also hectic. Assistants, or tenders, played vital roles for the divers. They were the lifelines -- hand-pumping oxygen through the breathing tubes and monitoring the signal lines.

These exploits entailed great danger, and the assistants on the river’s surface were held in suspense many times as the divers fought for their lives while doing their jobs. Diver Charles Gunderson recalled the terror of being stuck below with his air supply cut off: “I had jerked the signal cord a half dozen times before I discovered it must be fouled above ... I couldn’t breathe ... It was up to me to live or die.” Charles lost consciousness on the upward journey, but recovered a half hour later.

The divers’ work was not just that of exploring the hull. Tugs were deployed to assist eight divers as they combed the bed of the Chicago River for bodies that had drifted downstream. These men worked from the Clark Street bridge to as far west as the Wells Street bridge – two full city blocks away. As the days passed, several bodies were recovered from this methodical search.