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May 2000 Vol. 26, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die

Part One: When Divers Panic

from the May, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Undercurrent reports regularly on diver’s deaths, not only in terms of their immediate cause — whether it be entrapment, embolism, running out of air, or some other accident — but also in terms of the diver misjudgment or error that led up to it. Of course, each accident is unique, and often they involve environmental changes, equipment malfunction, or the diver’s own health problems. But diver error is almost always a factor — often a critical one. We offer these evaluations based on the latest case reports from the Divers Alert Network, the South Pacific Underwater Medical Society, and other sources. In this article, the first of our series, we report on dive deaths that occurred after something went wrong — and panic set in.


Panic can occur when one seems to lose control of a situation. A calm and reasoning diver, when losing control, can get the situation back in hand. When one panics, the situation is out of hand and cannot be controlled. In this case, a newly certified 31- year-old female in an advanced open-water course was making a drysuit dive under instruction. She lost a fin when she entered the water from the boat, and, by the time she borrowed a replacement, she and her buddy had missed the opportunity to descend with the instructor and other students. With no one to guide her down and no one experienced to assist her, she began to struggle on the surface, apparently panicking, then drifted away from the boat and sunk, apparently losing consciousness. They rescued her within 10 minutes, but she died 10 days later without regaining consciousness. Had the victim been able to relax and assess the situation, she could have scrubbed the dive.

In a comparable situation, had this diver remained calm and allowed his buddy to help, he would be alive today. It didn’t happen. This 51-year-old was diving in a quarry with a buddy and made a dive to 90 feet, where he entered a cave. His mask became entangled with one of the cave’s permanent guide wires and, though his buddy rendered assistance, the victim panicked and never regained his composure. He lost consciousness, and the dive buddy brought him to the surface, where resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

As we have written recently, unexpected currents can sweep divers away, as they do frequently in Cozumel. But unexpected currents can also scare a diver; then, rather than calmly working her way out of a current, fear takes over. In the case of this 40-year-old female on a 50-foot dive after a shore entry, a current separated her from her buddy and she panicked, then shot for the surface. She died of an embolism, but her panic caused her death.

When a diver undertakes a dive for which he is untrained or unprepared, there lurks in him an apprehension that, if not controlled, can turn to fear and panic. Here a 39-year-old diver had plenty of experience in open water, but no formal training in cave diving. Nonetheless, he joined a certified cave diver and others who were not cave divers to enter a cave at 92 feet for 40 minutes. No one knows why, but in the cave the diver panicked and swam away from the group to get out. He did, but died on the way up, perhaps from an embolism. That he was wearing too much weight might have contributed to his lack of well being.

Getting back into the water after several years can also be a threatening experience, as it was to this 50-year-old male. He was taking a class at night in a cold water quarry, wearing a wet suit. His mask flooded and, rather than stop and clear it, he panicked, swam away from his buddy, and was later found unconscious on the bottom with his regulator out of his mouth.

Panic is clearly a stressor, and while it can lead to bad decisions — or none all — it is also dangerous to a person with cardiac disease, which it may have been in this case.

This 41-year-old male was a recently certified diver who had made only two dives and was now making his ocean dive. At 57 FSW he panicked for no known reason, went to the surface, and was in obvious distress on a long surface swim. He lost consciousness while being assisted back to the boat, and resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful. While embolism is a possible cause of death, so was the victim’s serious cardiac disease, another serious problem responsible for more than its fair share of dive deaths, something we’ll talk more about in the next issue.

It’s hard for anyone to predict in advance whether they’ll remain calm in an emergency or become frightened, panic, and react out of emotion rather than level-headed common sense. But certainly the easiest and best time to avoid a situation that’s likely to be too much to handle is before you ever get into it.

— Ben Davison

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