Many people will have dived on the James Egan Layne but few may be aware that it was threatened with closure to divers in 1976.
A now yellowing article from Trident magazine (BSAC’s official publication of the time) supplied by Gerry Hassell, Kingston & Elmbridge’s President, reveals the story behind the dramatic headline.
For those who don’t know the James Egan Lane was a Liberty ship, built in December 1944 and sunk in March 1945 in Whitsand Bay, West of Plymouth. She lies upright, in around 26 metres of water and is therefore very popular with novice divers or as a second dive.
Divers over the years had reported seeing strange glowing discs on the wreck and after reports in a West Country newspaper in 1975 that the holds were ‘carpeted with dead fish’ the Royal Navy investigated. However they found no dead fish and tests of the water showed there was no problem so no further action was taken.
In 1976 Gerry Hassell was diving with Jon Weller who found some of the discs and brought them up to the surface with him. Gerry knew that they were probably radio-active and so threw them straight back in. Jon was curious though and wrote to the Hydrographic Department. They not only knew about the discs but had already put plans in place to close the wreck to divers because of the potential risk to health associated with the high levels of radioactivity.
The discs were actually forerunners of modern Catseyes®, and were used to aid aircraft landing in war-time. Pilots could see the glow from the discs and could use them to guide the planes in. Given the time the Egan Layne sank, it may be that these ones were destined for use on the allied advanced landing grounds in Europe.
On hearing of the plans to close the wreck, Gerry and fellow club members contacted the Hydrographic Office and were put in touch with the Royal Navy. This led to a meeting at Gerry’s house with Lt. Commander. Lampard, who was in charge of the Plymouth Command clearance diving team to agree a plan of action. The Navy were proposing to blow the wreck flat unless they had help locating the discs and recovering them.
The Navy’s diving tender was not very large and because of the restricted diving area it was agreed that only Gerry, Norman Hayes, Stuart Farman and his wife Bronwynne would be allowed to dive with the Navy’s clearance divers. The dive was scheduled for March but had to be delayed until May. On the allotted day were met at HMS Drake barracks in Devonport by Chief Petty Officer Diving ‘Jan’ Gardner who was in charge of the recovery expedition and were taken on board the dive tender Instow.
The wind was blowing a hearty 4-5 and this mean the original plan, to transfer to the dive site on inflatables was abandoned and the divers jumped in off the side of the Instow � a descent of two to ten-metres depending on where you stepped off!
All divers were required to have radioactive sensitive material taped onto their bare chests, wrists and forefingers to monitor radiation levels whilst underwater. Gerry, Norman and Stuart were the first team in with two Navy divers. When they reached the wreck they made for the number one hold at the bow, where many of the discs were located in lead-covered boxes about 18-inches square, and attached a heavy hawser to it. This was attached to a marker buoy.
They then began gathering up the many discs lying loose so that they could be collected the following day. Each disc was �about 2-and-a-half inches across and a-quarter-of-an-inch thick and looked rather like two pieces of circular Perspex encapsulating a faintly luminous pale-green centre, about the size of a road tax disc�. Stuart bought two complete boxes to the surface for examination and they were found to contain around 240 discs. On the surface the weather had shown no signs of improvement so it was decided to leave the remaining boxes until the following day.
Back on board the Instow the finds were being examined. The boxes were put in yellow drums, marked ‘Danger: Radioactive Waste’. Geiger counters placed near the drums gave quite strong readings. Readings taken from the material taped to their bodies showed that the radioactivity levels in water were not the high.
On day two, the wind had reduced to a Force 2 which boded well but it had been decided that those who had dived the previous day would not be allowed to return to number one hold because of the danger of over-exposure to radioactivity. In the event Gerry, Norman and Stuart were cleared to dive the rest of the site to check for stray discs but were only allowed a very limited amount of time in number one hold. Two fresh Navy divers continued the removal of boxes from number one hold. A probe containing a radioactivity counter was lowered down to the wreck on an umbilical cord; several hotspots in the hold which recorded high levels were identified.
Although the majority of discs had been retrieved � the final number of retrieved discs was 2000 � they were still concerns about allowing divers access to the wreck if the radioactivity levels had not been sufficiently reduced. To evaluate the levels dives would need to be made the following day – and possibly the day after – to try to establish if the levels were low enough.
Therefore on day three, Gerry, Norman and two Navy divers lifted the remaining boxes of broken discs and the probe was lowered again. One major ‘hotspot’ and two minor ones were found and a further dive revealed part of another box of discs at the major ‘hotspot’ and single ones at the other two. These were all recovered.
Following analysis of the discs, it was decided that the James Egan Lane was safe to dive on without fear of exposure to radio-activity and that there was little danger of divers being able to pick up loose discs although it possible that discs remain on the site, buried out of view. Readings taken at the time showed that each disc recorded an average reading of 50 mr (milli-rems) per hour. This compared with the acceptable radioactivity dosage level for a civilian of 500 mr per year.
Needless to say if you do happen to see something glowing when you dive the wreck, any discs should be retrieved, handled carefully and immediately handed in to the authorities who can arrange for its disposal.