Divers Institute of Technology

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Life-Altering Work: DIT Grad Spenser Wigsten On Helping After the Hurricanes

Monday, November 27, 2017

Spenser Wigsten, a graduate from Diver’s Institute of Technology (DIT), first heard about commercial diving from the most unlikely source.

After graduating from Binghamton University with a degree in engineering, Spenser found himself in a tough spot. “I came into the market at a bad time,” he says. It was 2011, just a few years following the 2008 financial crisis. Engineering jobs were scarce.

So Spenser made his way back to his hometown of Ithaca, New York. There he worked odd jobs, just trying to make ends meet. He worked in painting, and construction. And at an organic deli market as a dishwasher. Surprisingly, it was at this last job where he got his first taste of commercial diving.

Spenser Wigsten

He explains how it happened. “One day, one of the cooks says ‘Hey, you have to watch this video!’” It was a DIT commercial. The commercial showed the exciting work of being a diver and tools the divers use on the job. The video stuck with him.

An Engineer Diver

Spenser’s intrigue after that day eventually led to a 4-month cross-country trip to visit DIT. He was impressed and committed.

“The realization that the industry even existed occurred that day in the deli.” But the realization that he could use his engineering degree within the field didn’t happen until later. “Once I found that out, I had a set of goals to strive toward,” he says.

After talking with instructors at DIT, he learned about non-destructive testing. He learned how engineers provide a crucial role as divers when it comes to testing and inspecting.

Getting a Foot In Inspecting

DIT graduate, Spenser Wigsten

After graduating DIT, Spenser landed a tending job with Echelon engineering.

He knew if he wanted to move forward he’d have to look elsewhere due to work being limited. Following a recommendation from another DIT alum, Spenser applied to COWI. Two months later he got a call, the first of 5.

“It was one of the most rigorous interview processes I’ve ever experienced.” But Spenser finally go the job he’d been striving for, and moved closer to New York City where the company was located.

As an engineer diver at COWI, Spenser’s work is focused on inspections: leading and assisting with inspections, and writing up follow-up engineering reports. The inspections might be routine check-ups of waterfront structures, bridges, or tunnels. Or it might be post-event inspections, like the ones following the hurricanes of 2017.

With people struggling to survive, Spenser and his team had an important role to play in helping the people of Puerto Rico.

An Event To Remember

With three major hurricanes in the fall 2017 season, places like Houston, Texas and Puerto Rico were left devastated. Just days after Hurricane Harvey landed in Houston, Spenser and his team received a call to go work in the Houston Ship Channel. It was one of the places heavily hit by Harvey.

“We worked for multiple terminals checking out docks,” explains Spenser, “inspecting several docks at each terminal.”

Puerto Rico

Terminals are facilities that manage oil being brought in, stored, and dispersed. They consist of several docks that service ships bringing in oil from local rigs and from around the world. “We inspected about 25 docks in a little over 20 days, doing complete Level 1 inspections: under and above water.”

These types of inspections are very detailed. It includes visually inspecting the structures and testing the soundness of the structures to make sure they are stable.

“It was very rigorous,” says Spenser.

After about three weeks of non-stop inspections and 12-hour work days, Spenser was ready to go home.

One Tragedy to the Next

But in Puerto Rico, people were coping with the aftermath of Irma. Then came Hurricane Maria. Maria left thousands of the families without electricity, gas, or clean drinking water.

This was no time of rest for those in the marine industry. Spenser was called to action yet again.

“I felt I needed to be there,” he says.

With people struggling to survive, Spenser and his team had an important role to play in helping the people of Puerto Rico.

Coping in the Face of Catastrophe

With all the transportation washed out by the hurricane, Spenser and his team rented their equipment in Florida and were flown by private jet into Puerto Rico. They were immediately struck by the devastation.

“When we arrived at the airport, people were standing outside asking for food. There were women with children [who] were not able to feed or bathe them.” Buildings, streets: everything had been torn apart and people were left trying to survive the remains.

“The island looked like a bomb went off.”

Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

 

Spenser was stunned by the havoc wreaked on the island. He noticed a distinct lack of foliage across the entire island. “I didn’t see one tree with a single leaf on it. Not one leaf.”

“It looked like upstate New York in the wintertime,” he recalls. A particularly eerie and bleak sight for a tropical island that is normally budding with lush, beautiful vegetation.

Tunnel Vision

Amidst the chaos, Spenser admits it was hard maintain his composure and focus. But driven by his ability to help, he found motivation to keep a professional attitude throughout the project.

Their client was a company whose ports provided 40% of petroleum to the entire country. But, like most ports, it was left inoperable amidst the crushing winds and waves. Getting it functional again was essential.

Spenser recalls seeing people waiting in line at the gas stations for 5-10 hours. Giving the country access to gas again was the first step to bringing in construction teams and, eventually, hope for restoration.

Spenser was use to mostly engineer inspection work. But the lack of time and resources on the island demanded he do more. And do it quickly and efficiently.

“We had to help rig and pull the [walkway leading to the dock] out of the water.”

Inspect. Help. Report.

Again, the days were long and they had little time to break. But when their tasks were completed, Spencer finally got to go home.

Providing Long-term and Short-term Aid

Their goal completed, Spenser saw first-hand the difference their team had made and knew it was going to be an important catalyst for providing much needed aid for Puerto Rico.

“It felt really good to know that work we were doing was, in the long-run, helping bring restoration to the island on a bigger scale… We made a positive change and accomplished on time,” he says.

In addition to their professional work, the team bought medical supplies, baby food, and other basic necessities to provide some immediate aid for the people. Confident they had done their best, the team left for home and some much needed rest.

A Key Lesson

As an engineer diver living near New York City, Spenser is used to a rigorous, hectic life. But he has learned the key to coping with that lifestyle.

And it helped him cope following his time in Texas and Puerto Rico.

DIT graduate, Spenser Wigsten

 

“I have to maintain myself in a chaotic culture,” he says. “I keep it fresh by maintaining my balance. If you don’t, [the work] can consume you.”

He does this, he says, by taking some time to decompress. He does this by hanging out with his loved ones and in nature.

“I spend some time with my girlfriend and my dog, and in the woods, and get back to square one.”

He’s seen a lot of people give up in the commercial diving world because of the intensity. “People think they’re invincible. They don’t recognize they’re overdoing it,” he notes.

It’s the love of the job that leads Spenser to take periodic breaks, especially after strenuous times like his most recent trip. “I’ve reflected that I like the job, and to maintain it I have to maintain myself.”

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