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September 1998 Vol. 13, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die

Part V— problems with gear

from the September, 1998 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Faulty equipment from a manufacturer rarely leads to a diver's death. More common is a diver's failure to maintain equipment, carry or wear the right gear, or assemble his gear properly. Newer divers are especially vulnerable to errors. Wearing too much weight, having an encumbered weight belt, or failing to drop the belt when one's life is at stake frequently contributes to diver deaths.

Inexperienced divers often wear far too much weight. Then, once underwater, they fail to add air to their BCs and unknowingly kick constantly to keep from sinking. Next time you're among a dozen divers on a day boat, you will invariably see one or more kicking like crazy to keep from sinking. Of course, that diver will be the first to run out of air.

Consider this 32-year-old inexperienced diver who toted 46 pounds of weight. He ran out of air after he went to 123 feet for twenty minutes. He refused to buddy breathe, but did accept his buddy's spare air. However, during his ascent, he panicked and headed back down, or perhaps sank, never dropping his belt. His body was recovered later.

When you're in trouble, you drop your weights to ensure that you will float; that's why it's important to make sure during your pre-dive check that you can indeed release your weight belt. This 50-year-old guy, with only five dives, could not. He ran out of air and became separated from his buddy. Another diver found him floating beneath the surface, unconscious, and they could not resuscitate him. He had incorrectly attached his weights so that he couldn't release the buckle on the weight belt.

A similar fate befell this 31-year-old certified diver, who made a shore entry with his buddy. After a long dive, but only to 15 feet, they surfaced and began to swim to shore. Struggling against a strong current, the decedent sank below the surface. When they recovered his body a month later, they found he had unsnapped his weight belt, but it was caught under the straps of his buoyancy compensator.

Two days later, the
dead diver was found
entangled in fishing
line at 80 feet. He did
not have a dive knife
and carried his weight
in his BC pockets.

Frequently, when divers set out to do a brief task, they treat their gear cavalierly. This 65-year-old diver jumped in to retrieve a ladder he had lost in 20 feet of water. He didn't connect his power inflator to his BC and inadvertently put his weight belt over his regulator hose. He apparently discovered the problem in the water, but a strong current swept him away from his boat, he sank, and he drowned.

Off Fort Lauderdale, four people on a private boat were ready to dive, so a 38-year-old diver jumped in the water to attach the boat to a buoy. He had yet to don all his gear, but wore his weight belt, which pulled him down when he hit the water. When he didn't surface, the other divers went in after him and pulled him to the surface, but it was too late.

A 46-year-old male was collecting mussels while on scuba, but was not wearing fins or a wetsuit in 64-degree water. He was found drowned, without his weight belt, in water shallow enough to kick out of had he been wearing fins.

A 33-year-old male on a large dive boat went down alone to hunt lobsters. When he didn't return, divers searched and found him drowned in a cavern at 50 feet with an empty tank. It turned out that his BC would not hold air and that he had incorrectly attached his first stage to his tank, probably resulting in a large air leak. While he failed to monitor his air, a buddy would have noticed the leak and presumably informed him during the dive.

A 43-year-old male with only three post-certification dives entered a lake with his buddy to spearfish. His buddy became entangled in fishing line, and when he freed himself, he could not find his dive partner. After searching, he went for help. Two days later, the dead diver was found entangled in fishing line at 80 feet. He did not have a dive knife and carried his weight in his BC pockets. A 43-year-old experienced female diver hadn't been diving in eighteen months. Before her shore entry in rough seas, she complained that the neck dam was too tight on her drysuit. She said she was going to skip the dive, but when the other divers returned they found her floating beneath the surface. An investigator found that the neck dam was so tight it could have interfered with her breathing.

Most experienced divers know that just because a diver sports an advanced certification doesn't mean he knows how to dive, let alone lead dives. There is no substitute for experience and maturity. Nonetheless, training agencies continue to turn turkeys into divemasters if they invest the money and time to go through a course -- brains are not necessarily a criterion. Take the case of this 31- year-old certified "divemaster" who was now on his 32nd dive. Wearing a drysuit, he went to 34 feet in a freshwater lake, where he had equipment problems and aborted the dive. On the surface, he told his dive buddy that he was unable to inflate his buoyancy compensator. His buddy tried to help him to shore, but the decedent slipped beneath the surface and drowned. He was overweighted, and his low-pressure inflator hose was not connected to his BC.

When we look at diving deaths, we usually learn that the official cause is drowning or embolism or heart attack. However, in many, if not most, of these cases, panic is the precursor -- and perhaps the real cause. A diver runs out of air, but he could buddybreathe and doesn't; a diver gets low on air and shoots to the surface only to embolize; a diver gets entangled and could free himself, but he panics and gets hopelessly entangled.

One of the more tragic examples of panic comes when a dead diver is found with his regulator out of his mouth or his mask missing -- often a result of panic. In these pages several years ago, Dr. William P. Morgan noted that anxious individuals exercising on a treadmill often remove an oxygen face mask if they have the sensation of suffocating. In studies, some anxious firefighters wearing a respirator will remove their face mask (their air supply) if they experience respiratory distress. Rescuers sometimes find dead firefighters with their face mask removed, although air remains in their tank. Indeed, divers in a panic about running out of air are frequently seen by their colleagues pulling their masks off.

Several DAN cases illustrate the problem:

A 35-year-old inexperienced male diver made a shore entry and a long surface swim with his buddy. He was having difficulty and swallowing water, so they headed back to shore on their regulators. However, he continued to struggle and did not have his regulator in his mouth when the buddy came to his aid. His buddy pulled him to shore, where resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

A 52-year-old male with limited diving experience became separated from his buddies just before ascent from 46 feet. They found him on the bottom with more than 1000 psi in his tank, but his regulator was out of his mouth, and he drowned.

A 24-year-old diver with little experience appeared anxious before her quarry dive. Underwater, she panicked at 25 feet and took her regulator out of her mouth. Her buddy surfaced to get assistance and returned to find her unconscious on the bottom. She spent four weeks in intensive care before they pronounced her brain dead.

A 35-year-old certified diver joined a commercial dive charter. At the beginning of the dive, his buddy had a problem with his weight belt and returned to the boat. He continued to dive alone but did not return. They found him drowned on the bottom, with his regulator out of his mouth. He had nearly a full tank of air.

A 54-year-old woman with little diving experience was on a wreck in 90 feet of water. For unknown reasons, she removed her regulator from her mouth while on the bottom. An instructor helped her to the surface, but she could not be resuscitated.

A 40-year-old infrequent but experienced diver was with his son when witnesses observed him having difficulties on the bottom. At one point, he did not have his regulator in his mouth, and other divers helped him to the surface. He lost consciousness and was unable to be resuscitated back on the boat.

Keep this in mind: if you have a difficult time breathing, a sudden chest pain that frightens you, or any other underwater stressor, don't remove your regulator -- ever. Keep breathing, get out of the water, and stay alive.

-- Ben Davison

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