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Neil Swidey

Award-winning journalist and author of Trapped Under the Sea, and specialist in risk and safety

  • About Neil Swidey

    Neil Swidey is the author of Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness, a No. 1 Boston Globe bestseller that was named one of the best books of 2014 by Amazon and Booklist. His first book, The Assist, was a Boston Globe bestseller that was named one of the best books of 2008 by The Washington Post. He was also a co-author of the New York Times bestselling Last Lion: The Fall and Rise of Ted Kennedy. A staff writer for The Boston Globe Magazine, Swidey teaches multimedia journalism at Tufts University and has served as an on-air contributing analyst for NBC News. His writing has won numerous national awards and has been featured in The Best American Science Writing, The Best American Crime Writing, and The Best American Political Writing.

    A quarter-century ago, Boston had the dirtiest harbor in America. The city had been dumping sewage into it for generations, coating the seafloor with a layer of “black mayonnaise.” Fisheries collapsed, wildlife fled, and locals referred to floating tampon applicators as “beach whistles.” And then, in the 1990s, work began on a state-of-the-art treatment plant and a 10-mile-long tunnel—its endpoint stretching farther from civilization than the earth’s deepest ocean trench—to carry waste out of the harbor. With this impressive feat of engineering, Boston was poised to show the country how to rebound from environmental ruin. But when bad decisions and clashing corporations endangered the project, a team of commercial divers was sent on a perilous mission to rescue the stymied cleanup effort. Five divers went in. Only three would make it out of the pitch-black, airless tunnel alive.

    Swidey tells this powerful story in his Trapped Under the Sea lectures. Drawing on hundreds of interviews and thousands of documents collected over five years of reporting, he takes audiences deep into the lives of the five commercial divers at the heart of the story: DJ Gillis, Tim Nordeen, Donald “Hoss” Hosford, Dave Riggs and Billy Juse who collectively had decades of combined experience in tunnels, on bridges, offshore oil-rigs and salvage missions. Swidey also shows audiences the other players in the cleanup effort—the engineers, politicians, lawyers, project planners, and investigators involved in the tragedy and its aftermath.

    With his lectures, Swidey raises an important question: What is the true cost of these large-scale construction projects as designers and builders are emboldened by new technology? This is a question of human risk—how it is calculated, discounted, and transferred—and the institutional failures that can lead to catastrophe.

  • Speaking Topics

    Trapped Under the Sea: Lessons on Decision-making, Leadership, and Risk Management

    In this talk, Neil Swidey engages audiences with powerful, widely applicable lessons about safety, risk, compliance, and organizational and human behavior, which emerged from the five years of research he invested in his acclaimed book, Trapped Under the Sea. At the center of his presentation is an examination of the forces that allow very smart people to make very bad decisions, and how those bad decisions can cascade into life-threatening situations for workers on the front lines. He explores these important themes through moving, intimate portrayals of real-life workers whose lives were jeopardized when the well-meaning managers running challenging projects couldn’t get along. And he offers valuable prescriptions for how workers, managers, and companies can continue to tackle ambitious projects while avoiding the mistakes that can introduce unnecessary risk. This talk can be tailored to specifically address issues of leadership, decision-making, occupational safety risk, organizational behavior, environmental cleanup, civil engineering/megaproject construction and design, high-stakes and high-risk missions, complex civil litigation, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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  • Praise for Neil Swidey


    Neil Swidey delivers a fantastic presentation, building on the lessons in his outstanding book. As the main speaker for our annual safety meeting, he got hundreds of foremen and superintendents to think about their work in a powerful new way. His talk received overwhelmingly positive feedback, and his sincere and genuine approach really made an impact with our guys.

    Leading construction group

    Neil Swidey did an outstanding job as keynote speaker at our annual client event, focused on quality, compliance and education.  Neil delivered his riveting tale, Trapped Under the Sea, as if it was a thriller with a moral undertone.  The audience was enraptured.

    Global independent safety science company

    Trapped Under the Sea offers vital insights into how organizations work—or fail to work—and how very smart people can make very bad decisions. Neil Swidey’s riveting account of the Deer Island disaster should be essential reading for anyone in a position of leadership. I couldn’t put it down.

    Amy C. Edmondson, Harvard Business School Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management

    Praise for Trapped Under the Sea

    Intense… A Perfect Storm of public works: the great, awful narrative about the building of a ten-mile tunnel that ends in a very dark place beneath the Atlantic. Maybe not for claustrophobes; definitely for everyone else.

    New York Magazine

    Dramatic...Through his meticulous reporting, Swidey sheds light on how the largest monuments to our collective genius are also the most likely to be seriously flawed. Audacious, brilliant, imaginative construction projects are really, really hard to build—and ultimately they’re built not by the dreamers who conceived them, but by the sandhogs and divers sent deep into the earth.


    While corporate boardrooms are the usual point of entry for dramas involving big money and technological hubris, Swidey, a journalist and author, works instead from the bottom up in his impressively reported account... His is a skillful examination into the basic fragility of such huge infrastructural projects and a lesson in how worker fatalities result not so much from single catastrophic mistakes as from ‘a series of small, bad decisions made by many individuals.’

    New York Times Book Review
  • Books by Neil Swidey

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  • 212 572-2013
  • Neil Swidey travels from Boston, MA

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