Gabe Spataro had a reunion with an old friend on Tuesday.
The legally blind Korean War veteran had to don scuba gear and dive nearly two dozen feet below the surface to meet up with his old pal, the Christ of the Abyss statute in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo.
The two were last united a year ago when Spataro made the trip from Chicago to the state park to celebrate the roughly 50-year anniversary of the statue being brought to the United States.
The two were first introduced when the statute was delivered from Italy. Spataro was participating in the Underwater Society of America's convention in the ballroom of the swanky Palmer House hotel in Chicago in 1962, where the statue was on display. Spataro took an active role bringing the statue to this country and finding it a home here.
Spataro, 83, and legally blind from macular degeneration, made the trip back to the Keys this week with the Chicago-based nonprofit group Diveheart, which teaches children, adults and veterans with disabilities how to dive as part of a scuba therapy program. He was able to make out the general shape of the statue but not details as he navigated from the boat to the statue with the help of two fellow Diveheart volunteers and the crew of Rainbow Reef Dive Center in Key Largo.
"There is a connection no matter what religion you are," he said. "It's dedicated to the people who live, work, play and die at sea. It's not just a statue."
Spataro was among a group of disabled divers with the Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association and their families who made the dive on the Christ of the Abyss. Some of the divers had minor physical disabilities, and others were battling autism. The group regularly makes dive trips to the Florida Keys with disabled divers.
The Diveheart program not only provides physical therapy, but also empowers the divers by giving them confidence, Diveheart founder Jim Elliott said. Several participants have since gone on to work in the dive industry.
"It's a unique way to grow the dive industry and provide therapy for people," Elliott said. "It is truly empowering people."
Spataro, who has been diving since the mid-1950s, credits Diveheart from bringing him "out of his depressed state" and reintroducing him to diving after going legally blind.
"They took me right out of my depression," Spataro said. "I heard the other Diveheart members' stories and saw how positive they were. They are truly changing people's lives."