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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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August 2000 Vol. 26, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die, Part IV

diving's number one killer

from the August, 2000 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Every dive accident is unique and occurs for a different reason. The immediate problem may be equipment- or health-related, or it may originate with changes in the environment. But whether a diver exercises control and displays sound judgment in handling the situation is almost always a factor in an accident. And, while unforeseen equipment problems or environmental changes may be outside the diverís control, divers are in sole control of their own response.

These examples come from the annual case reports from the Divers Alert Network, the South Pacific Underwater Medical Society, and other sources. Last month we discussed diver entrapment, a fatality that frequently takes a diver by surprise. Poor judgment often plays a significant role in these accidents, as it does in the fatalities we discuss this month: death from embolism.


The biggest single killer of divers is an embolism. There can be a wide range of initial events ó low on air, fear, excessive buoyancy ó but most often these events can be managed ó unless a diver panics. Once a diver loses his cool and falls victim to panic, he is out of control and likely to ascend far too rapidly. It happens even to experienced divers.

For example, this 32-year-old diver had technical dive training and experience. He made repetitive dives to 226 fsw for 44 minutes to penetrate a wreck but without a buddy. Running out of his bottom mix, he couldnít find the anchor line, so he sent a lift bag to the surface to give him a guideline for decompression stops. But the bag line was only 150 feet long, and, rather than estimate stops, he apparently panicked and made a rapid ascent to the surface, omitting required decompression. He lost consciousness at the surface and could not be resuscitated. His death was due both to embolism and severe decompression sickness.

. . . her partner had forgotten to put on his
BC, and, once in the water, his weight belt
had slipped to his knees. . .

A 52-year-old, very experienced diver dropped to 175 fsw without a buddy for 7 minutes and then made a very rapid ascent to the surface. He became incapacitated on the surface and was pronounced dead at a local medical facility. It is an unusual case because he knew that he had a terminal illness ó he was quite ill on the way to the dive ó and this may represent either a suicide or his attempt to get one last dive in.

Too many people with advanced training and little diving experience actually perceive themselves to be advanced divers. And that can be trouble.

Running out of air is one of the more common reasons people shoot to the surface. Of course, there is virtually no reason to run out of air, but an experienced diver should know that he can still make a controlled ascent and probably get a few breaths as he rises and his regulator works again in the decreased ambient pressure.

People in training donít know those tricks. This 65-year-old male, who was a student in an open-water diving class, went to 50 fsw. After 30 minutes, he ran out of air and buddy-breathed toward the surface. Just before reaching the surface, he broke away from his buddy and made a free ascent. He lost consciousness and could not be resuscitated.

This 60-year-old male in an open water class was doing his third lifetime dive. He was ascending with the instructor after what seemed to be an uneventful dive when he suddenly lost consciousness near the surface. The instructor pulled him to the boat, but they pronounced him dead at a local hospital. His death was a mystery until they reviewed his computer and found that he had made an unwitnessed rapid ascent from 60 fsw to the surface, then returned to the bottom before making his final ascent.

Of course, divers make errors, some foolish, especially with their equipment. This 51-year-old male, a very experienced diver, entered a cavern with his buddy. He soon began to struggle with his regulator and look at his gauges, then signaled that he was out of air. His buddy offered her octopus, but he would not take it. She tried to bring him to the surface but was unable to do so, and he drowned. As it turned out, his air valve was barely open, and the dive buddy confirmed that no pre-dive buddy check had been performed.

This 57-year-old male had moderate but infrequent experience. He offered to clean the hull of a friendís boat and entered the water, which was only 8 feet deep, without fins or a BC. He was in the water alone and was overweighted. When he did not come up as expected, his girlfriend called for help, and he was found on the bottom under the boat.

This 62-year-old male divemaster went to 88 fsw for 20 minutes in a strong current. Separated from his buddy, he ran low on air. For some reason, he tried to drop his weight belt, but it became tangled around his fins. They found him unconscious 10 feet below the surface, and he could not be resuscitated.

This 49-year-old male with technical dive training made a dive in very cold water using a dry suit. After completing his dive, he took off his dry suit but accidentally dropped his prescription lens mask over the side. He went back after it wearing only his wet suit and using a tank that had little air remaining. He was found drowned on the bottom just a few feet away from the mask that he had dropped.

This 48-year-old male certified diver made a shore entry in rough surf, became separated from his buddy, and ran out of air. Problem was, he used the same tank he had used the previous day without refilling it, and he began this last dive with 1000 psi.

This 38-year-old female diver with less than 5 lifetime dives took another newly certified diver and their brandnew equipment out on a boat. No one else was on board and the current was strong. Neither diver descended; her partner had forgotten to put on his BC, and, once in the water, his weight belt had slipped to his knees. She was not a strong swimmer and struggled on the surface before losing consciousness. Her dive buddy made it back to the boat and called for help, and the decedentís body was recovered 15 minutes later by Coast Guard personnel.

Itís sad to read about deaths that so easily could be averted. In each of the last few cases, a little clear thinking would have saved lives.

-Ben Davison

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