Under Water with Larry Elliott

9:15 pm Feature Stories

 ABC Ink

By Dawn Shurmaitis

Resting 530 feet below the surface of Lake Superior lies Michigan’s answer to “Titanic.” There, immersed in darkness, is the wreck of the “Edmund Fitzgerald.”

“You can’t help but think of the men who died. It’s a cold, watery grave and it hits you hard. It increases your respect for the power of Lake Superior,” says WJRT-TV anchor Larry Elliott, a veteran scuba diver as well as a veteran newscaster.

Elliott is like an underwater Superman. Every week day, viewers of the Flint station’s 5 p.m. broadcast see him neatly dressed in suit and tie, calmly delivering the news. On weekends, and during emergency rescues, Elliott tosses aside his business suit and dons one made of rubber. “I love the adventure of it,” he says.

A newscaster for 23 years, Elliott’s been diving the Great Lakes since 1975. The “Edmund Fitzgerald” — immortalized in a popular song by Gordon Lightfoot — is his most memorable dive. The 729-foot ship sank in 1975 during a violent storm. All 29 sailors on board remain entombed in the hull. Elliott’s studied that hull during three expeditions. Twice with a robot submersible equipped with 3-D cameras. The last time, he was inside a mini-submarine, relying on a high-definition TV camera and the same state-of-the-art lights used during filming of “Titanic.”

The crew visited the wreck to recover the ship’s bell, now used as the centerpiece of a memorial in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, 17 miles from the ship’s final resting place. The expedition was a joint effort of the Canadian Navy, National Geographic and the museum, where Elliott serves as a volunteer board member.

Diving since age 20, Elliott spends a good part of his free time wearing a face mask and breathing through a regulator. “I’ve always been fascinated by water,” he says. “As a kid, I never missed watching Lloyd Bridges on ‘Sea Hunt.’ ”

While most divers prefer the calm, clear waters of the Caribbean, Elliott is a staunch supporter of his native Michigan and the Great Lakes, which are known for typhoon-force gales that can whip the water into 40-foot-waves. “It can get pretty nasty, pretty fast,” Elliott says.

Even on the hottest summer day, Lake Superior’s water below 70 feet remains a constant 38 degrees. There isn’t much sea life visible. Without portable lights, it would be ink black. Yet nothing deters Elliott from strapping on his gear, especially when it’s time to rescue someone in, or under, the water. The newscaster is a team leader of the Genesee County Sheriff underwater rescue and recovery team, which trains monthly — summer, winter, spring and fall. Diving under ice, Elliott says, “is a whole different world and set of risk because there’s only one way in and one way out.”

When he dives, Elliott often carries along a camera. During shoots for documentary filmmakers, he combines his love for diving with a knack for photography. Below-surface shoots are no easy task. There’s no place to plant your feet to steady the camera. The fins can churn up water. And, you have to shoot pictures while swimming. Elliott does it all, and does it well. Working in conjunction with the shipwreck museum, he’s produced the Emmy-award winning programs “Graveyard of the Great Lakes” and “Fitzgerald.”

The anchorman won a third Emmy for a show on an entirely different subject — the Japanese educational system. For that story, he wore his other suit, the one that comes with a tie. Last year, he also worked 11 days in Guatemala, acting as writer, reporter and cameraman for another well-watched series. “I’ve always loved the technical side of TV, even though I ended up on camera,” he says.

Born in Flint, where he’s worked 18 years, Elliott is now 44, married, with two grown sons and a grandson. He didn’t start out aiming for a broadcasting career. In college, he worked part-time at a radio station. After earning a degree in drafting and designing, he got a job in electrical engineering, but boredom drove him to start bugging a fledgling CBS affiliate to hire him. “It was such a small station, I learned along the way,” he says.

Of course, he’s seen the movie “Titanic”— twice. He’s still kicking himself for turning down a chance to act as an extra in the film. “Who knew it was going to be this big?” he says. While he dreams of one day diving the most famous wreck of all time, the $30,000 excursion pricetag is curtailing those dreams. For now.

 

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