Seaford area resident Starace was an amateur diver, diving instructor

By Lynn R. Parks

The recent situation in Thailand, in which a dozen adolescent and teenage boys and their soccer coach were rescued from a cave after their way out was blocked by flooding, has been followed with particular interest by John Starace, who lives near Seaford.

Starace, 87, was an amateur diver and diving instructor and was frequently called out to help in recovering the bodies of drowning victims.

He is especially sad that the rescue claimed the life of a diver. News reports said that former Thai Navy SEAL Saman Guman was putting oxygen tanks along an escape route when he ran out of air. He lost consciousness and rescue workers were not able to revive him.

"He was a professional diver and knew what he was doing," Starace said. "I'm certainly not going to judge him in any way."

Starace hasn't been diving since the mid-1970s, when he visited San Diego and went underwater to photograph the sights there. But he still loves to talk about the sport, as well as about shipwrecks, how the ships met their ends and how difficult it is for divers to reach the remains.

A wall in his den is covered with photos of ships that met untimely ends. Newspaper clippings that he collected and preserved in a scrapbook document recoveries that he participated in.

Among his books is "Deep Descent: Adventure and Death Diving the Andrea Doria" (2001) by Kevin F. McMurray. The book includes the story of Starace's diving to the site of the Andrea Doria, more than 200 feet underwater off the coast of Massachusetts. The Italian ocean liner sank in 1956 after another ocean liner, the MS Stockholm, ran into it.

His daughter Kim Engle, who lives with him, found the book in Barnes and Noble. "I picked it up and started reading it, and there was my dad's name!" she said.

According to the book, Starace was the oldest among a group of divers who traveled in 1973 to the site of the Andrea Doria. He was paired with Gary Gentile, the youngest of the group, who had just four years of experience diving and who had organized the expedition.

"Everyone hoped that the mature and safety-conscious Starace would slow down the impetuous and daring Gentile," McMurray wrote.

The two divers made their way to the shipwreck and to a 2 and -foot hole that had been torched out the year before by other divers. "John Starace remained outside the hole shining his light inside, giving Gentile a beacon to guide him. Slowly sinking down into the darkness, Gentile noticed the drop ceiling was beginning to separate away from the steel. Cables were draped down across it, and as Gentile went deeper, it narrowed, as if he were descending down a funnel of a spider's web At about 210 feet he stopped.

It was dark and visibility was no more than five feet He was very much alone in the narrow, darkened shaft of steel. "That's it,' Gentile remembered telling himself. 'It's spooky. I'm scared.'

He started his ascent. "Above him he spied Starace's beam of light. Spreading the cables with his free hand, Gentile emerged into the green glow of ambient light that showered down from the surface Gary Gentile has finally made his first penetration into the Andrea Doria."

"Getting down to the Andrea Doria is really the Mount Everest of diving," Starace said. Even today, adventurers try to make their way to the shipwreck. In 2017, English diver Stephen Slater, 46, an experienced diver and part of an excursion to the site, was pulled unconscious from the water. Attempts to revive him failed.

Over the more than 20 years that he was actively diving, Starace estimates that he ventured out into deep water hundreds of times, perhaps even more than a thousand times. He visited more than 40 shipwreck sites.

His wife, Joan, stayed at home with their daughters, Engle and Holly Ericksen, who lives in Salem, N.J. Joan didn't worry about him, Starace says. "She knew that he was a good diver," Engle added.

Starace grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Lido High School in Lido in 1949. He joined the U.S. Navy that same year and served for nearly four years as a gunner's mate. Based in Little Creek, Va., he served on a tank landing ship (LST) and on a landing ship medium (LSM).

He spent some time in Greenland as part of Operation Blue Jay, the United States' secret project to construct Thule Air Base. One of his scrapbooks has photos from the time he was there. "There's nothing green in Greenland," he said.

Starace was married in 1952, near the end of his time in the Navy. After his discharge, he trained to be a toolmaker. When a small piece of flying steel penetrated his left eye, leaving it blind, he left that career to operate a gun club in New Jersey.

He learned to dive through lessons at a YMCA pool. He was a member of the Eastern Divers Association, covering New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and was a registered diving teacher with the National Association of Underwater Instructors.

He and Joan moved to Delaware 14 years ago. Joan died in 2014.

Starace said that diving is a great sport. "When you're down that deep, you're weightless," he said. "If you are just going down to have a good time, and you're careful, you can have a ball."

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