Monday, September 17, 2012

The March Eighteenth Rhapsody

On March 18, 2012, I performed an underwater handcuff escape at the New York Aquarium out in Coney Island Brooklyn. This event, which was almost six months in the making was sponsored by the New York Aquarium and the New York Police Department (NYPD). The NYPD would provide the handcuffs and the police officers who would handcuff me securely before I leaped into one of the outdoor tanks at the Aqua Theatre. The producer of the event, Gary Dreifus, did a masterful job in getting all the parties on board with this event.  He handled all of the publicity for the event, negotiated with all of the officials, those at the Aquarium and elsewhere and was the go-between between the NYPD and myself.
An excellent poster to promote the event was designed by my very good friend, George Allison whose talents are beyond compare.
Back in January of 2012, Gary and I took a Friday afternoon jaunt out to Coney Island to meet with officials of the Aquarium. It was a cold day only in the upper 40s and after taking the Q train from Manhattan to the New York Aquarium stop, almost the end of the line, I walked over the pedestrian bridge linking the Coney Island Boardwalk with the New York Aquarium where I met Gary and Patrick and several officials including the dive captain, the marketing manager and a few of her assistants, some other corporate types and several dive assistants. After shaking hands all around, we were ushered into a back room where we all took seats around a large rectangular table. The marketing manager first, with the help of Gary gave an overview of the event; the who, what, where, why and to some extent, the how of the event.
It was then the dive captain's turn. An older gentlemen, he gave the appearance of being extremely knowledgeable in every aspect of safety. He carefully explained all the potential dangers of the event starting first with the temperature of the water and how, if not carefully monitored could lead to hypothermia and death. The water that morning was topping out at about 44 degrees. All of the tanks were salt water, which would be a first for me in any kind of stunt. I've swam in the ocean before, but never did a stunt in salt water. Most of  my escapes were (are) in rivers and, as we know, they are fresh water. Nevertheless, it would be salt water since the occupant of this tank, a 400 pound harbor seal, named Duke would be moved out of this enclosure for my performance on March 18.
As for today, Duke was already out of his enclosure, so it would be possible for me to take several dry runs (wet runs?) in the water. The Aqua Theatre seats roughly 500 people and is essentially theatre in the round with the spectators having a view of the tank through the glass below. The picture below (taken during the actual performance on March 18) gives an exact look of what the audience would see. It was taken by photographer Dennis Galante who was seated in the audience and captured a moment in the escape as I struggled with the handcuffs.

As for our pre-meeting happening now, the dive captain then deferred to one of his assistants who explained what his role would be. Afterwards, it was off to the Aqua Theatre for a few run throughs in the water. I changed into my bathing suit. One of the divers went all out, completely suiting up in a wet suit. He would be joining me in the water should I run into trouble and need help. I climbed the stairs to the top of the tank and dove in. It was cold, very cold and at first my body recoiled from the shock. Even after years of doing winter escapes in the Hudson and other rivers you never really get used to it. Something else I was not used too, was the salt water. I swam in the water for several minutes, with the crew standing up on the ledge shouting instructions to me. I would then get out and then would dive in again. I was testing out the depth and the best possible vantage point for the audience. I was at the Aquarium for about four hours that day, dove in the water more than a dozen times. Afterwards, I changed and we met again in one of the executive's offices and I was informed that a local paper, The Brooklyn Daily, had just come out that day and did a big spread on the upcoming event. 
After our meeting, I was eagar to get home and take a shower. I had a thick coating of salt on my body and I could taste it. It started to harden on my sking and it felt like a layer of crust over my body. Our meetings ended aabout 4pm and I caught the Q back to Manhattan.

March 18, 2012 was the scheduled day of the event. It was a Sunday afternoon and that morning, I was featured in the Sunday Metro section of The New York Times with a big spread on that day's event.
I arrived at the New York Aquarium with my photographer about 12 noon and we met the rest of the crew at the entrance. The New York Police Deapartment was already there and we were moved into the location.  There was quite a bit of build-up to this event and we were told by the Aquarium that the event was sold-out. The New York Times article that morning greatly helped in the promotion and the crowds were already lining up at the entrance. reporters from the Daily News and The New York Post as well as several wire services were in attendance. I consulted with Gary who would be the MC of this event who, at this moment was speaking with all of the local officials who had shown up.
I changed into a bathing suit and placed this over this a sweatshirt and sweat pants. Gary would be introducing me and I would need to come out and speak before the escape.

Finally, I was introduced. One police officer stayed on the ground near me and he had two sets of handcuffs. Another police officer, who carried the other three restraints would be standing on top of the tank near where I would dive in. In total, I was to be handcuffed with five sets of NYPD issue Smith & Wesson handcuffs. I would then dive into the tank and free myself while underwater. Since the Salt water proved to be extrememly buoyant in practice, a thirty pound weight belt was attached to my waist along with two ten pound ankle weights. There was fifty pounds of iron, in addition to the restraints, dragging me to the bottom! (I better get out!)  Gary introduced me to the crowd and then introduced each police officer. One set of handcuffs was placed on my wrists and I allowed the audience to come forward and examine them. Then, while Gary narrated, I walked up to the top of the tank, staying in view of the audience the entire time. The second officer placed the remaining three sets of handcuffs on me. The above photogrsaph shows me seconds before diving.
From below, Gary led the audeince in a countdown------- 9 . . . 8 . . . 7 . . . 6 . . . 5 . . . 4 . . . 3 . . .
2 . . . 1. . . ZERO . . . I dove into the the thirty foot deep tank filled with more than two thousand gallons of 40 degree salt water where I escaped all of the handcuffs underwater in little over a minute and a half.

All in all, it was a fun day at the New York Aquarium. 

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