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HAZMAT and Hurricanes: DIT Grad Theo Matthews Shines In the Midst of Dark Times

From an early age, Theo Matthews, a graduate of Diver’s Institute of Technology, loved the adventure of life underwater.

A high school friend and trained scuba diver helped motivate this initial passion. During a youth fishing tournament in their hometown, a young child fell in the water. Theo’s friend was able to use his diving expertise to save the child’s life, becoming a local hero. Theo was inspired by the event.

Hooked to the water and the adventure of scuba diving, Theo began working at a salmon farm in his home state of Washington. But with little pay, he was forced to work construction on the side to afford his bills. Barely scraping by, but loving life near the water, Theo didn’t know there was a greater adventure in store for him.

Never Too Late: Diving With Ambition

“I never knew about commercial diving,” says Theo. That is, until an acquaintance shared with him the opportunities available in the commercial diving industry. He began doing his research and found DIT, an excellent facility and only 2 hours away from home.

At 30 years old, he quit both his jobs and moved to Seattle to start a new life as a commercial diver. Theo quickly became known as ambitious and driven while in school. And those qualities payed off.

“The very same same day I graduated, I got a job working with a company in Galveston, Texas. The same company I still work for,” Theo explains. He went from a tender to diver, and diver to supervisor in a remarkable four and half years. But one job in particular stands out that made Theo a shining star in his company and in the industry.

Armed for the Job: Assertive, Competent, And A Little Good Luck

Theo currently works for T&T Marine, a salvage company. “We do salvage of every kind,” he says. And when things are slow, they work on ships. Theo’s work mostly consists of offshore diving, which he knows is something to be respected.

At the beginning of his career with T&T, while still a tender, Theo was called to a job on Lake Erie. The team was called to pull up a 100 year old barge, sunk in the middle of the lake. Theo was the first one to arrive at the job, and so he became the first one in the water.

A leak had been identified in the barge, but no one knew where it was coming from. Theo was sent in to investigate.

Within moments, a routine inspection became a life-altering situation.

Encountering Danger First-Hand

It began when Theo noticed bubbles rising up. “They looked like air bubbles,” he recalls. “But when you touched them, they burned.”

That’s when he knew he’d found the leak.

Within seconds of the discovery, the team was pulling him from the water, rushing him by speedboat to the shore, and then off to the hospital. There he was placed in quarantine and met by nurses in HAZMAT gear.

Theo was baffled. “I’m fine. I’m normal,” he thought. The nurses were equally baffled. “They thought they were getting someone with their head falling off,” he recalls.

Prepared for The Moment

The leak Theo had encountered turned out to be a dangerous chemical. The project quickly turned into a HAZMAT situation. The team had another problem. None of the other divers could fit the HAZMAT suit required for the job. But Theo could.

With his HAZMAT training from DIT and the routine training he received from his company, Theo was ready for the job. “That was my moment,” he says. “It became HAZMAT and I was trained up.”

It was uncomfortable and it was cold.

But what was an unfortunate situation became a fortunate moment for Theo.

Gaining Experience and Training From Unlikely Sources

During the HAZMAT project, Theo proved himself capable and quickly moved into a primary diver position.

But it wasn’t just coincidence that led Theo to success. “I had a lot of good mentors,” Theo says. “Some willingly and other unwilling.”

He recalls a diver at his company who was known for being excellent at what he did and for his expertise with the equipment. But he was also known for his reluctance to teach others what he knew. So Theo took matters into his own hands.

“Every day I came in early,” he explains. “I had to force him to teach me what I wanted to know.” Theo would go in early and start taking things apart. Then when the others arrived, the unwilling expert would go in to fix the equipment. And so, Theo began learning by watching how the experienced diver put things back together. Eventually, he got tired of fixing what Theo had taken apart and began showing Theo how to do it. He began teaching him.

“Now,” Theo says, “I’m the one getting calls every day.” He’s the one other divers look to for his expertise. “It’s good to feel valuable.”

Theo’s expertise not only gives him security in his job, but opens up more opportunities.

A Different Kind of First Responder

Theo was part of a team that responded to the aftermath of hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. From his station in Louisiana, the drive to Houston is normally 4.5 hours. But this time it took them 14 hours.  

“There were a ton of jobs.” The hurricane wreaked the city and the coast. “Every kind of thing that could have sunk, did.”

Theo helped salvage various things from the water, from docks to personal yachts.

Through his experiences, Theo has learned several valuable lessons.

“Stay Positive; Stay Safe”: Advice From A Pro

The first, he says, is to find joy in the little things. “I almost quit because of the tough environment.” But he learned to do be quick and responsive, and now he is confident in what he does.

Next, and most importantly, says Theo, “follow the plan.” This is a fundamental key for all divers. And something Theo and his company take seriously. Their motto: “Plan to dive, and dive to plan.”

For their divers, every job is taken seriously. “We treat 10 feet like 100 feet.”  Safety is essential as divers put their life on the line every time they go in for a project. Theo has learned that there is little room for error in the diving industry. But for those who learn, it is very rewarding.

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