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Keith Duval, 1999
Keith Duval has a job many urban cowboys would think the coolest in the world. As a member of the New York City Police Department's elite Scuba Unit — 28 guys whose job is to plumb the depths of the city's waterways and recover anything that people have discarded, from guns to other people, or parts thereof, he shrugs at the gee-whiz enthusiasm of everyday working stiffs. His job, as most eventually become, is simply how he earns his living.

Along with his teammates, a day's work might consist of Keith rescuing passengers clinging to a capsized pleasure craft; interdicting and boarding (in his dry suit and holstered gun) a Colombian tanker freighted with cocaine; and talking a "jumper" down from the Brooklyn Bridge. Then he hops on his motorcycle and speeds home to his beautiful wife, a clothing designer. On weekends he's either single-handedly restoring his Brooklyn townhouse or casually competing in triathlons. Oh, yeah, and he's also a freelance model, having strode the catwalks last fall for Tommy Hilfiger's Spring '99 collection. (Which, truth be told, is how we made his acquaintance.)

After five years on the Scuba Team, the job may have lost the maverick appeal that originally attracted him as a teenager working in a dive shop on Staten Island, but he still loves what he does. And the daily reality for him is that it's all dependent on teamwork, on being a crucial part of a well-oiled machine. But the next time you see a helicopter hovering over the East River, and a diver plunges into the water below, it might just be Keith.

DAVID: When I told people that I was going to be talking to you, they thought it was some sort of fantasy of mine.
KEITH: Some people don't even know we exist. They're like, "What the hell is a scuba team?" But the team's been around for about thirty years. There's only been something like eighty people assigned to the team since its inception. There's 28 of us now, so in that respect it's really tight.
DAVID: How long have you been on the team?
KEITH: Five years.
DAVID: And how old are you now?
KEITH: Just turned thirty.
DAVID: Do you see your job as risky and cool?
KEITH: I don't view it that way anymore, but most people will say, "How the hell do you do that stuff?" Even guys who are on the police department.
DAVID: It's become routine for you. It's lost its exotic appeal.
KEITH: Exactly. But when you break it down, it really is interesting. Definitely some of the detail work we do. It's very tedious and you have to be real patient, and I think we do a lot more work than people realize. The public only hears about the high-profile jobs. It took something like the crash of Flight 800 for the city to realize what they have. It took something of that magnitude for people to realize that we're out there, but we're out there every day.
DAVID: How would you rate your experience diving for the wreckage of Flight 800? Was it the most difficult job you've done?
KEITH: It was the biggest investigation launched ever. And not just in the water. It was a massive criminal investigation. We were working with people who investigated Lockerbie. But you take the Lockerbie crash, and put it underwater. That was Flight 800. You're picking up things the size of a triple A battery. Anything you saw on the bottom had to come up.
DAVID: What kind of effect did that have on you?
KEITH: It was a daily grind, but we were prepared for it. A lot of people kept asking us, "How are you guys coping mentally?" But it's something we deal with every day — on more of a massive level, but still the job we do.
DAVID: The media were asking about the bodies you were encountering because, for the average person, that would be so horrific. Are you just mentally separating yourself from that aspect of the job?
KEITH: It sounds kind of cold, but when those situations are in front of you on a daily basis, you really have to try to do what you have to do, and let that be the end of it. When you have an active job, whether somebody drowns or a boat overturns, you're dealing with, typically, one person. So you find the person, it's closure for the day, you're done. The big difference with Flight 800 was that you were dealing with it on a daily basis, and there wasn't closure. Every day a body would come up, even multiple bodies, massive wreckage, and you know you'd be going back again the next day.
DAVID: Do you go back to one image in your mind from that experience?
KEITH: Probably my first dive is the one that will stay with me forever. We were the only guys out there the first four or five days, and I did one of the first dives. I remember hitting 105, 110 feet and we just came upon sheer wreckage, and there was a female in the wreckage. My partner went right by her. I grabbed his fin. I don't know how I saw her, I guess she just stood out.
DAVID: What did you do?
KEITH: We brought her up. I mean, you're just so overwhelmed by the entire experience. It just blew your mind to be down there. But we were all working as a team — that's really what kept everything together. You do remember the job, but also the camaraderie that was built out there between us, the guys in the Navy, everyone just coming together. The thing with Flight 800 was that it was a recovery operation. The most important jobs to us are the rescue operations, when we're saving people's lives. Flight 800 was probably the biggest job I'll ever be on in my career, but it was still a recovery operation.
DAVID: Are there scuba teams like the NYPD's in other cities?
KEITH: We're the only guys that man a helicopter 24 hours a day for air-sea rescue work.
DAVID: Not even Boston, or other coastal cities?
KEITH: No, nobody really has the amount of equipment that we have. Big city, big budget, gotta have the stuff. Especially New York. Every borough is surrounded by water.
DAVID: People forget that.
KEITH: Even I didn't realize. When I first got to scuba I was like, "What the hell are we gonna do?"
DAVID: Now the question everyone wants to ask you, at least in this office, is what's the most gruesome thing you've ever come across in your daily job?
KEITH: That's a difficult question. But picture the worst thing you could actually think of ... anything.
DAVID: A bloated, old, dead woman cadaver.
KEITH: See, a floater wouldn't even bother me.
DAVID: A floater being a dead body in the water?
KEITH: A floater — like in the springtime, when bodies actually pop up.
DAVID: Because of the gas that collects in them?
KEITH: If a body goes down in December, January or February, it may not come up until the spring. Because the gases themselves haven't had a chance to get going. What they call "body refloat" ... it's actually your organs that are deteriorating, and with everything sealed off and spasming, your body's actually ...
DAVID: Filling up like ...
KEITH: A balloon. And when the water gets warmer, the body becomes buoyant. That's what causes them to rise to the surface. And they can be pretty harsh-looking.
DAVID: Except for the weighted-down ones.
KEITH: You even come up then.
DAVID: You do?
KEITH: Your skin peels off. A body that's been weighted down cement-shoe-style, you know old-school-style? — you're gonna float. Because eventually your limbs are gonna give. Unless you're in a metal tool trunk — which we've seen — you're eventually coming up.
DAVID: Do you think of these things as gruesome?
KEITH: It's gruesome, yeah. People who really don't deal with it, couldn't look at it. But I couldn't do my job if I thought about it in those terms. That's what's sad. I couldn't even tell you what's the most gruesome thing I've ever seen.
DAVID: So you've become anaesthetized to those types of things?
KEITH: You have to be. I couldn't live any other way. And you have to have some humor about it. There was one particular job we were on not too long ago — some body parts found out in Coney Island Creek, near Sheepshead Bay. They thought it had something to do with Russian mob stuff, and we were out diving. We ended up finding a couple of hands, some feet, chopped up in a bag. One of the divers set the severed hands on a rock. Now, I don't know if you've ever been down to Coney Island Creek, but it's eerie in its own little way, dilapidated boats, that kinda thing. The detectives are there, crime scene guys are there because it's a homicide and they have to gather all the evidence. So this diver says, "We got the two hands, come down and photograph them." And a detective says, "What do you mean two hands? There's only one hand here." Now they're all looking for the other hand, thinking someone's fooling around, maybe put one of the hands around a cup of coffee — who knows? And about five feet away, there's a rat, and it's got the hand in its mouth, and it's running away.
DAVID: What about a head? Did you ever come across a head in the water?
KEITH: Sure.
DAVID: That must be a little harder to see than a hand or a foot, because of the face. What does a human head look like that's been underwater for a long period of time?
KEITH: If you're dealing with a head you're dealing with a skull, more or less. Boom. The skin peels off. So whether it's a dog's head or human, it becomes a skull. But I haven't seen a fresh head when I was diving. I've seen them when I was out on patrol, at car accidents. We've seen some decapitations, and that stuff is bad. I was on one job where a 16-year-old kid was fooling around with a gun and blew his brains out. That's really hard to see. But if you're dealing with a body that's been floating around in the water, I mean, yeah, it's hard to look at, but you're not caught up in the ...
DAVID: Immediacy of the tragedy?
KEITH: Yeah. You're finding a body, and it's been in the water for a week or two.
DAVID: Have you ever contracted anything from the river?
KEITH: I got giardia once. Sickest I've ever been in my life. They're parasites that live inside you. But you just take some medicine and it kills them.
DAVID: Let me ask you about suicides — "jumpers."
KEITH: Common occurrence. That's routine.
DAVID: Mostly from bridges?
KEITH: Yeah. Every now and again you'll get a call, "EDP" — that's Emotionally Disturbed Person — which is suicide victim. But out on the street, EDP could be anyone. A guy sitting naked in Tompkins Square Park, yelling at everybody, that's an EDP. Ours primarily are jumpers. A lot of times though, it's a stand-off. They don't jump. But if they start taking their shoes or clothes off, then they're going.
DAVID: They're gonna jump?
DAVID: Why do they bother taking their clothes off?
KEITH: We don't know. It's a mystery. But for some reason, the people who start stripping, we know they mean business. They're gonna jump.
DAVID: What effect does jumping off the George Washington Bridge have on the human body?
KEITH: Blunt trauma. Heavy duty blunt trauma. Water is very dense. The impact I'm sure isn't concrete but the effect is pretty close. We've had guys who belly-flopped and ruptured every possible thing inside you can imagine in their body. And we've also had guys who've jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge and then swam to the boat.
DAVID: When did you first start diving?
KEITH: I started when I was about 15. I was working at a local dive shop in Staten Island — cleaning wetsuits, working on a boat, doing whatever I had to do. I was the only one in my family that dove. I have three older brothers. My grandfather had a house out in the Hamptons, so my childhood was essentially spent out there. We were always fishing, always clamming. And now I remember floundering around on my living room floor with some cushions tied to my back with a belt. I was probably five years old. I always knew I wanted to dive. So I learned how to dive, and from the dive shop I started working as a mate on a boat that took recreational divers out. At 15, 16 I didn't have the cash to go out. So I started working on the boat, diving for free a few times a week. The thing was diving, that's all I cared about. And that's where I got a good early start.
DAVID: How did you end up going out for the scuba team?
KEITH: A fellow that I work with now, Alan Kane, one of the most senior guys on the team, he's more or less the training officer there and a detective on the unit. He owned another dive shop on Staten Island. I went to work there and I was like, wow, this guy's on the police dive team. I was 17 or 18. And my dad was a policeman. It's kind of a clichˇ, but ...
DAVID: It was in your blood.
KEITH: Yeah, I knew I wanted to do it. I was like, man, if I could get on the team. At the time there were only fifteen guys on the team. So when I went to the police academy I definitely knew. I remember telling guys, "Goin' to Scuba." But the test is only given once a year, once every two years. They only pick up two guys — maybe. The attrition rate really isn't there, you know, guys aren't leaving. So unless they're going to build the team up ...
DAVID: The chances are slim.
KEITH: Exactly. So I went to the police academy, worked in a precinct, and had a great time. I worked at the 120, which is on the other side of the ferry in St. George. I got into a narcotics team over there, worked in narcotics for a little while, then took the exam, passed and eventually got on the scuba team.
DAVID: What's the exam like?
KEITH: That's what sets us apart from everybody else. It's the only unit where you have to take a physical and a written exam. If you don't pass our test, you're not getting in.
DAVID: How does it differ from the regular police academy physical?
KEITH: Oh, it's totally different. Since I've been there, I've been to a couple of scuba team tests. Generally we get fifty to seventy guys, and if we get four or five guys who pass it, that's a lot. Everything's taken the same day. In the morning you go in and take the written. If you fail any part of the written, you're out. After the written, we go to the gym. And again, if you fail any part, you're out. So we do pull-ups, and there's a minimum requirement of twelve. Then we do push-ups. I think you have to do fifty. And these are minimums. If you only do the minimum number of pull-ups and push-ups, you get a 65 on the test.
DAVID: That's already a lot, even for fit people.
KEITH: If you're not in shape, you're not gonna pass. Then you do sitting tucks. You have to do seventy-five. Then you have to run a mile in 6:38. And then we go to the pool. You have to do a 500 in eleven minutes — that's twenty laps. We'd rather have you do it in seven, but eleven minutes is passing, 65 again. But if other guys do it in seven, you're out. The competition's there. You have to do one length underwater without coming up. Then you put a fifteen to twenty-pound weight belt on, and do it again. Which is not terribly difficult, but it's one thing after the other. So we're trying to get into your psyche a little bit. Right after that you go into a half hour survival float, which is technique. And then you have to tread water for fifteen to twenty minutes, and for the last three or four you have to do it with your hands out of the water. By that time, you're pretty beat up. Then comes the fun part. You put your gear on, do some basic skills, and when that's complete, there are five or six of us in the deep end of the pool, and you have to get past us. If you hit the surface, you're out.
DAVID: What do you mean get past you?
KEITH: We sit in the deep end and we take the applicant and pass him from one guy to the other, ripping his face mask off, pulling his weight belt off, anything. It's basically torture.
DAVID: So anything that occurs to you.
KEITH: Exactly. More or less it's things that can actually happen in a five-knot current in the Harlem River. I was diving with one of my partners recently, and he swam right into a shopping cart. If you panic, you're finished.
DAVID: Have there ever been any women on the scuba team?
KEITH: We've had a few try out, but there haven't been any who passed the physical.
DAVID: And how do you continue staying in shape?
KEITH: We work out an hour a day, it's built into our chart. We work twelve-hour days, three days a week.
DAVID: How does law enforcement come into your job?
KEITH: We do a lot of investigative work. We do all the work for the precinct detective units. A lot of times it's people giving other people up — "Look, I know you locked me up, but three months ago I was with, you know, Johnny. He capped somebody and we went down the river and tossed the gun. I'll give you the gun if you work a deal out with the D.A. for me." They call us, we try to interview the witness or the actual perp himself, and we do all the diving for that.
We do a lot of work for the FBI and the DEA, and all the diving for customs. All the customs stuff is drug interdiction — seizing a lot of tankers off shore. So we have to be cross-designated as customs agents. There might be a boat coming up from Colombia, for instance, heading into the Domino's Sugar plant in Long Island City, and we search the entire ship.
DAVID: How do you go about seizing a tanker?
KEITH: Customs does it. They go out there, Coast Guard comes out, we go out, board it, hit 'em with papers. The scuba team's main function is to go under the ship, because a lot of times they have what customs agents call parasitic devices — they're tubes, and they could be twenty, thirty feet long, which they tack-weld on the underside of the ship and fill with cocaine.
DAVID: I didn't know that's how it was hidden.
KEITH: Sure, and when the ship comes into port, whoever's here to receive it has their own divers. They go under and take everything out. There's plenty of ships that drop anchor, so even if we're not dealing with customs, we go out, drop the sidescan sonar in the water and we can see the bottom of the hull. And if we see one of these so-called parasites, we call customs, they come down, and we sweep the ship. It takes a lot of legwork to actually get a hit on one of the ships, but when you get one — 150 or 200 keys, it's a really big find.
DAVID: Do you ever go after the little stuff — like the idiot who's on a jet-ski in New York Bay?
KEITH: Nah, our primary function is diving. The Harbor Charlie Unit covers up to the 59th Street Bridge, and up to the George Washington Bridge. And they do all that work — the boat stops, and so on. We don't really get involved in summons activity. Our job is to dive. Kind of go-fetch.
DAVID: So you don't carry guns.
KEITH: No, of course we do.
DAVID: So a gun is actually holstered to your ...
KEITH: When we dive ships, like for customs, we carry weapons. We take them in the water with us because a lot of times, we check the rudder compartments of ships, which is a little void on top of the rudder truck. You'll find stowaways up there, and a lot of times they carry a couple of duffel bags of coke. So if somebody's up there with a MAC-10 ... it could be a little embarrassing. Sure we carry weapons. We all carry nine millimeters like the rest of the department.
DAVID: Tell me about the modeling gig with Tommy Hilfiger. How did it come about and has that led to other offers?
KEITH: I modeled back in the day, when I was younger. Dabbled around a little bit. A lot of my friends were into modeling. One of my friends said, "Tommy is looking to chase things up a little bit, he wants to get different guys to rock his gear around, they're changing the image, why don't you go check it out." They were looking for some type of angle, for real people. So I went on the first call and they shot a few Polaroids of me, had me strut on the catwalk for them. They were great people, and I thought I hit it off with them, but you don't know, right? "We'll call ya." Yeah, right. I didn't even know when the show was. Couple of weeks go by, I go home and there's a message on the machine. My wife says they want to see me again. So I go back and now I'm in Hilfiger's office. I met Stephen Sirota, the photographer, and the casting agent, who said, "Tell them what you do." And they were so overwhelmed by the scuba thing that a couple of weeks later they called and said, "We're going to use you." So I did the spring show. It was a dynamite time. Tommy was there, I was talking to him.
DAVID: What was he like?
KEITH: Great guy. Totally down to earth.
DAVID: Has it led to other offers?
KEITH: A couple of things have come up. I'm still trying to work things out.
DAVID: Someone here wanted to know if you've ever been harrassed by women in your wetsuit.
KEITH: Someone here wanted to know ... I like that. They're called drysuits. That's what we wear. But your dealings with the public are pretty minimal. If we have to deal with you, you're not in too good of a shape. Every now and then we go for coffee down at the Seaport. One time last year we had just finished diving, and there was a group of middle-aged tourists on the dock. So we pull up in our boat and we're all grungy. I had this ratty sweatshirt on, and this German woman was yelling, "Can I have a shirt?" I said, "I don't have another!" There were like a million people gathered around us. I thought, "I'm not gonna be put on the spot here," so I took my shirt off and the whole place was like "Yaaaaaaahhhhhh!" It was kinda cool.