The SuperiorLab-Marquette Disaster

Deep-sea explorer Ecclesia Hummingbird, August 23, 2001 on PBS: “I live and work here in SuperiorLab, a hyperbaric underwater habitat 950 feet deep, by a drowned petrified forest. Welcome to science’s first permanent presence at the bottom of Lake Superior, with our partners: the University of Minnesota, NASA, and our corporate sponsors. We are offshore between Two Harbors and Silver Bay, in a quarter-mile-wide underwater canyon whose sides slope hundreds of feet down. This scar cuts for thirty miles getting deeper and deeper. The lake’s canyons divide the bedrock like cracking skin, and this crack is one of its deepest, Bible black like space.

“SuperiorLab is manned by a rotating crew of divers and astronauts-in-training who live here for months at a time. Because of budget cuts, that is currently a crew of two. There’s myself, and there’s my half-sister Persephone Marrow, a geologist developing protocols for future Mars missions. We are the so-called ‘genius daughters’ of the university’s Professor Joseph Marrow.

“We take notes looking through the bubble windows as fat, five-foot lake trout, in excess of a hundred pounds, chase deepwater sculpin. We have shown that traces of downwelling light, invisible to us, inform the predator-prey relationship in this underworld. The exterior lighting of the station must seem searingly bright as if they are swimming past a supernova.

“One thing we do in our hard-helmet saturation diving suits, not unlike spacesuits, is study the petrified grove on the slope above. Trudging uphill we take core samples from their trunks, trying to identify the species – they are some kind of prehistoric conifer. We use them to study climate change in the pre-glaciation era. This forest grew when Lake Superior was smaller and shallower. A change of geological eras buried it in mud and silt and the water level increased by a thousand feet. In that anoxic environment, the trees mineralized and opalized as silica replaced their tissues. Trace minerals provide a bright range of reds and greens.

Photo credit: Persephone Marrow

“The sediment sloughed downhill over eons, revealing the jeweled wilderness like the ruins of Roman columns a hundred feet tall. The silt filled the deepest part of the canyon, now a desert-like expanse which we live at the edge of — SuperiorLab has flat feet like the moon lander to keep us from settling. Light from the station fails to reach the treetops extending up into the darkness, or perhaps they reach down from it.”

Testimony of Joseph Marrow, from the September 30, 2001 inquest into the sinking of the Marquette: “SuperiorLab was serviced by the 724-foot Marquette which refueled and resupplied it every couple months, as we made our rounds through the Great Lakes hauling scientific and industrial materials. It was the first of September. Over a 490-foot depth, we were two miles from where we would deploy the diving bell to the habitat. The deck crane maneuvered a caddy of oxygen canisters when there was an accident. I should have seen they were not secured, and that several lacked valve protection caps. One of the canisters toppled and its valve snapped off creating a spark. The canister shot like a flaming rocket along the deck and penetrated the forward hold’s hatch cover. The hold contained four tons of bulk magnesium powder bound for making alloys in Chicago. The canister exploded, and then the magnesium exploded.

“It was like we were on an out-of-control fireworks barge. The hatch covers blew off and a rain of white flares showered the deck, igniting the other canisters. They tore around like missiles and the flames feasted in the now oxygen-rich atmosphere. Some idiot sprayed a carbon dioxide extinguisher into the hold which only acted as a combustive oxidizer. The Captain directed the crew to abandon ship as the magnesium fire compromised the hull. We barely made it to the lifeboat. Many simply leapt overboard. The Marquette dipped beneath the waves nose first, silver flames projecting rays through every orifice of the bursting steel plates as the water intensified the chemical reaction. Within three minutes the ship raised her ass in the air and slipped under. We watched her brilliance disappear from view. Several crew in the water got pulled down in her suction vortex as escaping air churned the water to a furious boil.

“What I didn’t know until later was the ship slammed into the canyon slope 490 feet beneath the surface and slid on a layer of mud which acted like a lubricant. The one hundred thousand ton vessel carved like a skateboard in a halfpipe toward the deepest point of the scar – my daughters on the SuperiorLab.”

Final transmission from Persephone Marrow, September 1, 2001: “Dad: I hated her. Even though I was the one who shared your name, she was the one hotboxing with you in the diving bell during training. As weeks on board the habitat turned into months, I thought our mission might end with her murder. The station had several modules but in total it was less square footage than a school bus. The bathroom had a thin curtain for a door, and she never flushed so the toilet stunk and grew discolored by the minerals in her urine. She was trying to save water. This morning I said to her, ‘We live under 12,000 cubic kilometers of water and you can’t flush the toilet?’ She accused me of hating the earth which is why I wanted to become an astronaut. I suited up and headed into the wilderness. In my dive lights the narcotic woods seemed like an exteriorized dream.  I imagined it populated by the passionate fairy creatures of Shakespeare, instead of trout, sculpin, and colonies of red hydra.

“I felt the impact, and the rumbling grew into quake tremors. Ecclesia cried out over the com, ‘It’s the Marquette!’ I spied a white star. The star grew into a sun mowing down the grove amid turbid silt lit like the blinding corona of a comet. I leapt crosswise downslope into the clutches of a tree, grasping at the quartzite bark. The approaching blaze refracted through the opalescent surfaces and interiors of the falling trunks, the fossilized light within shaking free.

“The ten-story ship tore past pulling an avalanche in its wake. Distantly I saw Ecclesia framed in the bubble window with her hand on the glass. Then SuperiorLab was flattened like an empty beer can crushed by a locomotive. The Marquette buckled at the midsection as it hit the bottom of the slope, and skidded sideways to a halt on the plain.

“Clinging to the tree which now leaned at an askew angle among the destroyed jeweled forest, I understood I was doomed. I have no way of surfacing, and only the air left in my tank. Any rescue will take days at a minimum. I need a diving bell lowered but I will be dead within one hour. In the near-zero visibility, I scaled the twisted hull as the silt cloud flickered and flashed like a receding thunderstorm. I entered the somnambulist Marquette and wandered its broken and haunted rooms.

“But the wreck had not completed its fatal plunge. It groaned and I felt it descend in the pit of my stomach – a second sinking as the shuddering plain of fine sediment acted like a fluid. The ship sank beneath the bottom with I the only witness. They will never find it, not with sonar, not with divers. As the lake floor swallowed it, I was pulverized by a wall of muck onrushing through the corridors, a tidal wave of quicksand filling the interstitial spaces. I always thought it was Ecclesia’s destiny to die at sea, not mine. My destiny was to die in space. But my helmet is cracked, flooding my suit with sea floor sediments. Minerals will seep into my cells and replace them. Maybe someday in a dry lake bed, alien archaeologists will excavate the Marquette and discover me, a crystallization of our failure and extinction, like my namesake the Queen of the Dead. I begin my million-year transformation into a statue of opal and quartz. One day my flesh will emit light when I return to the land of the sun.”


An index of Jim Richardson’s essays may be found here.

2 Comments

real_matty_pizza

about 4 months ago

I think LSA needs to get in touch with the mayor of Two Harbors.

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