Beneath the surface – an extraordinary man

I have encountered many talented and extraordinary people in my non-destructive testing (NDT) career and I am proud to profile one in particular.

Many of my NDT activities involved underwater ultrasonic surveys. I had some experience of diving activities when I taught NDT at the College of Oceaneering, where the diving students used modern wetsuits and diving gear. However, when I became associated with Parker Diving Service, I had the opportunity to see ‘old school’ diving expertise in the form of Torrance R Parker and his associates. Torrance and his crew used the traditional drysuits and hard-hat diving helmets and had the ability to control their buoyancy. Torrance and his fellow divers were not young men. During our commercial partnership Torrance was in his fifties, yet he could spend long periods submerged while we engaged in a multitude of underwater activities.

We conducted hull thickness gauging in lieu of dry-docking, propeller inspections, underwater flaw detection, nuclear power plant outfall inspection and internal structure gauging in the huge flooded cargo tanks of supertankers.

Torrance was from Oklahoma, where he concocted his first diving suit out of inner tubes to use on a local river. He wanted to fight in the World War, at the age of fifteen, when his brothers went off to war, but his parents would not sign the age waiver. He instead signed up for sponge diving in Florida, wrangling a spot as a hard-hat diver on a sponge boat headed for the Mediterranean, and never looked back.

When the war ended, Torrance moved to California and worked part-time jobs in underwater construction. When he was drafted during the Korean War, he landed a stint as an army diving instructor for the duration of the war.

Back in California, Torrance started Parker Diving Service Inc in 1947 as a sole owner/operator, where his bright orange diving barge was a familiar sight in the Los Angeles harbour. He worked on salvaging the SS Sansinena, which exploded in the harbour in 1976. He laid oil piping in the crocodile-infested Amazon and had a close encounter with a shark while working on a power plant outfall. He dived in a tank containing bunker fuel to open a valve and even in a tank filled with liquid phosphorous, where he needed to be washed down with water when he emerged to avoid spontaneous combustion.

Torrance flew an orange bi-plane out of Long Beach Airport and often buzzed the LA harbour. He also wrote two internationally acclaimed books: ‘20,000 Jobs under the Sea’ and ‘20,000 Divers under the Sea’.

At the age of 88, Torrance made his last plunge beneath the ocean wearing a vintage canvas diving suit, full brass helmet and large rubber boots in a demonstration aimed at educating people about the history of our centuries-old effort to conquer the world under the sea.

Torrance was a founding member of the Historical Diving Society (HDS) and an inductee into the Association of Diving Contractors International (ADCI) Commercial Hall of Fame. He passed away in March 2017. Rest in peace, my dear friend.

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