By STEVE PFARRER
Daily Hampshire Gazette
BELCHERTOWN, Mass. (AP) — He was swimming, very slowly, in about 150 feet of ocean water, trying to make his way through the darkened wreckage of a Japanese freighter from World War II. To avoid stirring the silty water any more than necessary, he didn't use fins, but instead pulled his way past an old catwalk in the freighter's engine room.
And that's when it happened - the crumbling path gave way and began to fall, sending other catwalks tumbling through the murky water. The diver cowered near the bottom of the ship, his hands covering his head, trying to avoid being battered by 250 pounds of corroded steel.
Just another day in the adventurous life of Peter Piemonte.
Piemonte, of Belchertown, laughs and shakes his head as he recalls this episode, which took place last November near the island of Peleliu (now Palua) in Micronesia, site of a famous invasion by U.S. Marines during the war.
"I remember thinking, 'I'm going to get pinned down here, and no one knows I'm even here,' " he says. "What a spot to be in. In the end, I was fine, I didn't get hit by anything, but there was so much silt stirred up, it was just pitch-black — I had to grope my way out."
That's a risk you take when one of your hobbies is deep-sea diving. There's also passing out underwater because of problems with your air supply, or getting decompression sickness — more commonly known as "the bends" — when you ascend too fast, allowing bubbles of dissolved gas to spread through your body.
But Piemonte, 57, knows a bit about handling risk — and minimizing it so that it doesn't get in the way of adventure. He's a longtime commercial pilot who's flown all over the world and navigated any number of storms and difficult, windswept landings. He's been diving off and on since his teenage years, fascinated with exploring old shipwrecks and the stories and artifacts they reveal.
Piemonte has pursued diving as a serious hobby for about 15 years, sometimes crewing with a research vessel based on Long Island that takes divers to famous wrecks like the Italian passenger liner Andrea Doria, which sank off the coast of Nantucket in 1956. The boat, the Garloo, also searches for possible wreck sites. Piemonte does cave and lake diving, too, sometimes alone and sometimes with other enthusiasts.
Sure it can be dangerous, he says, but the potential threats are outweighed by the challenge and thrill of discovery that comes with Piemonte's full-throttle pastimes.
"The idea of seeing something that no one has seen since it slipped beneath the waves is just fascinating," he says of diving. "You're looking at a moment that's frozen in time."
In late September, Piemonte was relaxing at his Belchertown home after 10 days of flying to various spots in the western United States. He's the aviation manager and one of three pilots for a small company that flies clients to business meetings and vacation destinations on a trim, three-engine jet — a Dassault Falcon 900. The plane operates out of Bradley International Airport in Connecticut, but Piemonte books the flights from his house.
It was a chance encounter at a small eastern Massachusetts airport in early 1973, when Piemonte was about 19, that led him to explore the air.
"I was working for a brick mason at the time who was taking flying lessons, and he took me up in a plane," Piemonte recalls. "It was kind of fun. Then sometime later, this buddy and I were bored, so we pulled into this place at the Beverly Airport that said 'Scenic Rides.' The guy behind the counter said, 'Why would a guy like you want to take a ride? For another $15, I'll give you a log book and let you fly the plane.' "
So Piemonte began taking flying lessons, though he says he had no intention at the time of becoming a professional pilot. He was more interested in exploring the outdoors on the ground: He was studying wildlife biology and conservation technology at a community college, and he also hunted and did motocross racing. He figured he would look for some kind of career in the outdoors.
But after a while, he says, "The siren song of aviation got really strong."
Once he got his pilot's license, he took on a variety of jobs out of that same Beverly Airport: towing banners, hauling freight, doing some flight instruction himself. In 1978 he was certified to fly small jets and began his career piloting corporate jets, working out of a couple of airports, including Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport. He's been with his current employer, Janus Equities, for about 20 years.
His schedule is highly variable from week to week, with the most typical trip lasting three to five days. He and a co-pilot shuttle up to a dozen clients per flight on three to four separate trips a month. Those journeys have taken him all over the world: to South America, Europe, the Caribbean.
"I've been very fortunate that my career has afforded me a tremendous amount of travel and opportunity to try different things," says Piemonte, who is single with no children. "I have enough time off between flights to do things I really enjoy like diving, golf and shooting and to have great friends and camaraderie."
Though he's lived in Belchertown since the late 1970s, when he started working at Barnes, Piemonte grew up in Salem. He first got the scuba-diving bug by reading about submarine warfare in World War II and the underwater explorations of Jacques Cousteau. Piemonte dived in the ocean, and also in inland waters like the Merrimack River.
His zeal for the sport waned a bit following an episode in 1978 helping a friend salvage a small plane that had crashed in the Merrimack.
"This was in February, and I spent a week in the water, in a wet suit, and I froze my ass off," he says with a laugh. "I said to myself, 'That wasn't any fun.' I didn't dive again in New England for a long time after that."
But in the mid-1990s, when his pilot duties began taking him to Mexico and the Caribbean, he took up saltwater fly-fishing and spear fishing. That prompted him to buy a 20-foot boat, which then prompted another thought: "You know, I could go scuba diving off this."
For some years he'd also been doing aerobatics in a rented propeller plane for fun — he was considering investing in his own plane — but he abandoned recreational flying once he got serious about diving again.
"I couldn't do both at the same time," he says. "They both demand your full attention, and I thought, 'If I don't drop one of these, I'm going to get hurt.' "
And Piemonte has been hurt. Once he was badly sickened during a dive when the carbon dioxide filtering device on his rebreather, which contains a mix of lithium and sodium hydroxide, got wet, causing the chemicals to foam up into a caustic cocktail. He burned his lips, mouth and lungs and had to use air from a spare oxygen canister to get back to the surface. "I was so sick," he says. "I couldn't taste anything for two weeks after that."
Even though scuba divers sometimes swim together, they operate as individuals; it's not like flying, where there's a co-pilot, Piemonte says. "You can't communicate," he says of diving. "Any problems you encounter, you have to solve them underwater ... That puts a burden on your equipment, your training and your ability to maintain control. You have to think your way out of the problem."
Sometimes that's not enough. He's lost a few friends over the years who ran into trouble like equipment failure that causes a rapid ascent and a fatal case of the bends. Just this year, he notes, five divers from the Northeast have died. "It's something you always have to be aware of."
But if you plan carefully, he adds, and you keep your cool in tight spots, you get the rewards — like investigating a sunken German U-boat, the U-853, near Block Island, R.I.; the Empress of Ireland, an ocean liner that sank in the St. Lawrence River in Canada in 1914; or the entwined wrecks of two coal-carrying schooners, the Palmer and the Crary, which collided and went to the bottom of Massachusetts Bay in 1902.
"Even though people will say I do risky things, I don't really agree," Piemonte says. "There is an element of risk, no doubt about it, but I always feel that my temperament, my equipment and my training will trump most any problem I encounter — and so far it has."
Piemonte's living room is a shrine to many of the underwater sites he's explored, a window to the past: old clocks, portholes, navigation equipment, well-preserved china and bottles decorate his mantel, cover his walls and fill his shelves.
"When I pass, I will give all my artifacts to people who value them," he says. "They'll be taken care of, they'll be displayed and in the end they'll go to a museum somewhere."
These days Piemonte's doing less diving, but not because of safety concerns. He is devoting more time to his newest hobby, target shooting with pistols.
He says he used to be a good shot when he hunted game birds, like grouse, with a shotgun. Piemonte jokes that he's having a harder time with small arms.
"Eh, I'm old," he says by way of explanation.
But that's a bit of an under-sell: Last year Piemonte, who makes his own ammunition, took fourth place in the senior classic division of a revolver championship hosted by the International Confederation of Revolver Enthusiasts in California.
Piemonte doesn't know what new hobbies the future might bring, but he figures whatever they are, he'll do them full tilt.
"I'm a busy guy," he says, "and I like bringing new challenges to my life."