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Scuba accident kills wreck diving pioneer

MOREHEAD CITY, North Carolina (18 Sep 2008) — George Purifoy of Morehead City spent the last hours of his life on a dive at the site of one of the area’s famous shipwrecks – a poignant end for a man known as a pioneer in North Carolina wreck diving.

“He certainly was a leader in the dive world,” said Carteret County Tourism Director Carol Lohr, a longtime friend. “I truly believe he was instrumental in making the wreck diving industry in North Carolina what it is today. He had a real passion about it, not just the diving, but also the history of the wrecks.”

Lohr came to know Purifoy more than 20 years ago as the North Carolina Seafood Festival held on the Morehead City waterfront was being organized.

Lohr said Purifoy, owner of Olympus Dive Center located on the waterfront, was always willing to take writers offshore and do what he could to promote wreck diving, but he was also a big supporter of his community.

“He was community oriented and he had a lot of ideas for making downtown Morehead City bigger and better,” Lohr said.

News of Purifoy’s death on Sunday spread quickly and left a community shocked.

According to accounts from those who knew him, Purifoy, 63, collapsed on board his boat during a dive at the Queen Anne’s Revenge shipwreck site and couldn’t be resuscitated.

The QAR project team begins its latest dive expedition to excavate artifacts from the site this week. News of Purifoy’s death cast a pall over preparations for the dive, but there was some comfort in knowing Purifoy’s final hours were also on a dive.

“He was doing what he really loved to do,” said QAR Project Director Mark Wilde-Ramsing. “He loved wreck diving, and he made it into the industry it is today.”

Sunday’s dive at the QAR site was part of the QAR Dive Down program, a partnership of the state Underwater Archaeology branch and local dive operators.

Wilde-Ramsing said the program is a bridge between the recreational diving community and archaeologists and educates participants about the historical and archaeological importance of the shipwreck and culminates in a dive at the site.

Purifoy supported the concept from the start. “He really saw the value of it and supported it,” Wilde-Ramsing said.

The N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores has also benefited from the support of Purifoy and Olympus Dive Center, which is sponsor of the dive program at the Living Shipwreck, its centerpiece exhibit, which features a replica of a German sub sunk off Cape Lookout in 1942 and divers who swim among the fish and sharks to educate the public.

The wreckage of the U-352 was discovered by Purifoy and several friends in 1974, but the site has become more than a place for divers. Purifoy always saw it as a piece of shared history – a memorial of the German soldiers who went down with the sub and a remnant of the World War II action off the North Carolina coast.

Scuba accident kills wreck diving pioneer George Purifoy

George Purifoy, left, is seen in this May 2007 photo with Heinze Richter, a machinist aboard the German submarine U-352 that sank off the North Carolina coast in 1942. Purifoy is one of he divers who found the wreck in 1974.

He also helped build positive relationships on the two sides. In 1992, on the 50th anniversary of the sinking, several survivors of the U-352 and several members of the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Icarus, which sank the sub, came together in Carteret County.

Aquarium Director Jay Barnes said Purifoy has helped make scuba diving and wreck diving off the North Carolina coast the success that it is today.

“He put Carteret County on the map with the worldwide recognition for wreck diving that we have here,” Barnes said.

Before devoting his time to Olympus Dive Center, Purifoy worked as a diesel mechanic and had other business ventures. He was co-owner of the former Atlantis Dive and Salvage Company and owner of the former Olympus Barbell Club, which was the first exercise gym in Carteret County.

But diving is what he loved.

“It was a passion for him instead of a vocation,” said Capt. Buck Wilde, a friend of Purifoy’s for 30 years.

A wreath of flowers hangs outside the front door of Olympus Dive Center and a diver down signal flag flies at half mast on dive boats docked in back.

Purifoy’s death leaves a void that can’t be filled but friends know Olympus Dive Center remains in good hands. Purifoy’s son, Robert, shares his father’s passion and has operated the business with him.

Purifoy is also survived by his daughter, Sandra Purifoy Maschmeyer, who resides in Illinois, a brother and sister and four grandchildren.

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