THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

At epic wreck, another victim

Former Bentley student is 16th diver to die exploring the Andrea Doria

In New York, a deckhand stood near the Andrea Doria in 1953. Sixteen divers have died while exploring the ship’s remains. In New York, a deckhand stood near the Andrea Doria in 1953. Sixteen divers have died while exploring the ship’s remains. (United Press/ File)
By Laura J. Nelson
Globe Correspondent / July 26, 2011

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The holy grail of shipwrecks was within Michael LaPrade’s grasp when he vanished.

As he drifted 25 feet above the skeletal remains of the Andrea Doria, buffeted by icy currents some 40 miles south of Nantucket, LaPrade let go of the rope that anchored him and two other divers to the surface 20 stories above.

“They turned around, and he was gone,’’ Edward V. Ecker Jr., chief of the East Hampton, N.Y., Police Department, said yesterday. “Just all of a sudden.’’

Fellow divers found LaPrade’s body Sunday afternoon on the ocean floor near the wreck, three hours after he disappeared, officials said, and took it to shore in Montauk, N.Y. The cause of death is under investigation.

The 27-year-old Los Angeles man, who attended Bentley University in Waltham, is the 16th to die in the quest to swim through the labyrinth of debris that was once the Andrea Doria, an Italian luxury liner that sank off the coast of Nantucket 55 years ago Monday.

“He’d been planning that dive for six months, and it was the thrill of a lifetime,’’ his father, Paul LaPrade, 60, said by phone from Phoenix. “But I told him he shouldn’t do it, because it’s such an unsafe place.’’

After LaPrade disappeared, two others began a time-consuming ascent in hopes of finding him. But there was no sign of him. A report of a missing diver came in to the Coast Guard Sector Southeast New England at 12:11 p.m. Sunday, said spokesman Ronny German. A helicopter, plane, and boat searched for LaPrade’s body on the surface, while fellow divers descended again. They brought the body to the surface at about 3:40 p.m.

Each year, hundreds make the 240-foot descent, thought of as the Mount Everest of scuba diving, through frigid waters, fierce currents, and changeable weather conditions to swim near the once-majestic 700-foot ship, which rests moldering on its right side near the edge of the continental shelf.

Divers are drawn to the wreck’s mystique, but also the challenge of the dive. It is more than twice the normal depth of a recreational dive, and movement grows increasingly difficult the deeper one goes. It is more dangerous near the wreck, where corrosive salt water has eaten away at the ship’s iron and copper fixtures, leaving stairways, bridges, and staterooms in a pile of debris.

“There’s nothing a technical diver loves more than a challenge,’’ said Ernest Rookey of New Jersey, who has done the Doria dive dozens of times. “Why do we climb mountains? Why do we go to the moon? Because it’s there. Because we can.’’

The autopsy and preliminary investigation of LaPrade’s scuba gear are being performed by the Suffolk County, N.Y. medical examiner, but results are not expected immediately. The East Hampton Police Department and the Long Island Sound sector of the US Coast Guard will investigate the death over the next two to six months, officials at those agencies said.

LaPrade made his dive from the John Jack, a New Jersey-based charter boat that is one of the few to undertake the challenges of a trip to the Andrea Doria: tons of supplies to shuttle to the dive site, which is outside phone service range, and the knowledge that divers could die during the weeklong voyage. The John Jack’s captain, Rich Benevento declined to comment.

Coast Guard officials said LaPrade had six hours of air in his tanks when he began his dive and had been below the surface less than an hour when he disappeared.

Andrea Doria hopefuls train and plan for years for the depth, which requires special equipment and a cocktail of oxygen, nitrogen, and helium to combat the effect of water pressure on the body and brain. Typical dives last between 2 1/2 and 3 hours. No sunlight reaches the bottom, and depending on weather and water conditions, visbility can range from 5 to 70 feet and is subject to change at any moment.

More than a third of the divers who have died at the wreck have suffocated after tangling their air hoses or tanks in nets, cargo lines, pipes, and other debris along the ocean floor, Rookey said.

“After three hours in the water, you’re tired, you’re cold, you’re wet,’’ Rookey said. “That’s a very bad time for something bad to happen.’’

LaPrade began diving when he was a teenager, his father said, and had done deep shipwreck dives in Belize, Mexico, and along the west coast of the United States.

“Diving around the world was what he loved to do more than anything,’’ Paul LaPrade said. “He’s very experienced, and diving was his passion, without question.’’

Michael LaPrade played football at Bentley University in Waltham and worked for a toy import company in Los Angeles, near where he frequently made dives, his father said. He leaves three younger brothers and a large extended family.

The deaths of those seeking the Andrea Doria are a strange adjunct to the ship’s story of survival: Of 1,660 passengers and crew aboard, 97 percent survived. The 16 who died in a dive to the wreck are a third as many as those who died originally.

“That in itself makes the Doria a positive story,’’ Rookey said. “It’s not a war grave; it doesn’t have baggage or a lot of negativity; you don’t get that spooky feeling of a ghost looking over your shoulder as you swim through her remains.’’

Laura J. Nelson can be reached at lnelson@globe.com.