Triton Submarines Races to the Bottom of the Ocean for Fame and Fortune

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"We were absolutely alone," Piccard told a reporter shortly before his death in 2008. "We had no way to communicate with the surface." But the pair kept descending.

Suddenly, a violent crack broke the silence. The Trieste shook as if hit by a missile. Without exchanging a word, Piccard and Walsh halted the descent and frantically pored over the controls to determine the cause of the explosion.

"We didn't know what it was, but it sure made a hell of a bang," says Walsh, interviewed by phone from his California home. "We looked around and thought, Well, we're still alive. The pressure outside was 7.5 tons per square inch. If in fact it had been [a crack in the cabin], it would have happened so fast that we wouldn't have been aware of it. We would have just died."

Without communication with the surface, the two men faced a decision: turn back or continue despite the scare. Piccard sent the sub sinking once again.

Finally, after more than four hours, the Trieste landed gently at Challenger Deep, the bottom of the Mariana Trench, roughly 36,000 feet below the surface. Walsh gazed out the window and saw a flounder-like fish undulate across the murky sea floor. Somehow, despite pressure of more than 1,000 times that on the surface, there was life in the deepest, darkest corner of the planet.

After barely 20 minutes in the bowels of the ocean, Walsh pulled a lever that released the metal shot into the water. The Trieste hurled upward.

The dive made headlines around the globe. But its importance was soon obscured by the glamour of the space race. The Soviets would soon send Yuri Gagarin into orbit, and NASA was scrambling to catch up. Compared to the solar system, the ocean could wait.

It would be five decades before pioneers as brave — or reckless — as Walsh and Piccard came along again.

By sheer luck, Lahey began piloting submarines just as they were becoming a crucial part of the offshore oil industry in the '80s. And only a combination of good fortune, wiles, and skill have helped him survive his two decades in the industry — as accidents, economic woes, and the long arm of the law all conspired to end his sub dreams long before he thought about venturing to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

After dive school, Lahey manned a number of small subs called atmospheric diving suits, capable of welding and repair work on oil rigs deep in the ocean. He mastered them one by one, welding broken oil pipes and laying explosives from the Pacific Coast to the Gulf of Mexico.

The work was dangerous as hell. He nearly died when his oxygen ran out while he was working under a Navy fuel tanker in the Chesapeake Bay. Then he was almost crushed when he was sucked into an underwater power plant pump in Palm Beach. And he endured leaks and fires aboard the small submarines he piloted. Once, in California, his sub got tangled up in wires. When a crane yanked him loose, it tore the sides off the tiny machine.

"We made new [parts] out of steel pipe and went right back in," Lahey says. "In the dive industry, they didn't want you to make excuses."

The months at sea took a toll on his personal life as well as on his health. He had married Catherine Percy, one of the industry's few female divers, soon after dive school, but the relationship became strained when she sued Lahey's bosses for refusing to hire her. The suit went nowhere, and Lahey joined another company in the colder, more treacherous waters of the North Sea.

"I had amazing experiences as a diver that I'll cherish for the rest of my life," Lahey says. "But it wasn't good for my marriage or for being a husband."

The couple tried to save their marriage in 1986 by moving to Jupiter, where they won a contract to search for debris from the Space Shuttle Challenger, which had exploded over the Atlantic. But when that job ended and Lahey began showing tourists around the Caribbean on subs, Percy stayed behind.

Sub tourism didn't take off, and by 1994, Lahey had moved in with business partner and fellow sub fanatic Bruce Jones on the tiny island of Anacortes in Washington state. A decade after getting into the sub industry, he was divorced and broke, living off credit cards and Jones' hospitality.

A Cuban-American playboy named Juan Almeida pulled him back in — until the new job ended in a spectacular federal bust.

Almeida, the son of wealthy Cuban immigrants, raced around Miami in a fleet of Ferraris, sold fighter jets to former Soviet republics, and saved spare engines to juice up his cigarette boats. He called Lahey because he had just blown $9 million on his latest gadget: an unfinished 16-person Swiss submarine. Now he needed someone to help him complete it.

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Michael E. Miller