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September 2003 Vol. 18, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Two Live-Aboard Fatalities Raise Question

were safety procedures sufficient?

from the September, 2003 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Live-aboard dive boats are not search and rescue vessels. They're not floating hospitals. But how much responsibility do they have for dealing with emergencies? Two recent reports suggest that some live-aboards may be unprepared to handle life-and-death situations.

A passenger on the Peter Hughes Star Dancer was diving the point at Peleliu Cut in Palau last March when a diver was brought up unconscious and not breathing. Our correspondent, who wishes to remain anonymous, saw that passengers were administering CPR and oxygen to the stricken diver, evidently spelling crew members who had begun the procedure several minutes earlier. An R.N. aboard took charge and began administering emergency first aid. The nearby Palau Aggressor provided a defibrillator. (Hughes fleet captain Allen Cull told Undercurrent that while Hughes boats don't currently carry defibrillators, they soon will.)

The 45-year-old victim, Elisa Tricco, regained a heartbeat after an hour of CPR and began breathing but only with assistance. She was loaded into the tender for an hour trip to town. Four guests accompanied the R.N. to keep Tricco ventilated.

Although the hospital had been informed of the situation, they lacked both the training and the specialized equipment needed to treat the victim. Tricco was airlifted to Guam the next day, but she died there three days later.

Back on the boat, the guests pieced the story together. Evidently Tricco had hooked onto the reef but then lost a fin in the current. Next she lost her mask, perhaps while looking back to assess the situation. She apparently panicked, dropped her weight belt, and tried to remove her BCD. Then she may have hyperventilated and passed out. Or she may have hit her head on the wall and gotten knocked out, as suggested by an abrasion on her forehead.Although she still had her regulator in her mouth and had plenty of air, her nose was exposed, and the high velocity current might have forced sea water into her lungs.

Several concerns arise from this tragedy. First, the Star Dancer had to get medical supplies from another live-aboard. Second, the dive briefing apparently didn't cover what to do in a panic situation or how to abort the dive. That is a serious omission, especially with novice divers in the group. And, of course, there's the questionable quality of emergency treatment in remote locations. With unsophisticated medical personnel and equipment at the hospital, the effectiveness of first response treatment becomes even more important.

In May, an empty scuba tank and orange safety sausage were all that was found of two Okeanos Aggressor divers who disappeared off Costa Rica's Cocos Island.American retiree Bruce Rubin, 56, and Brazilian Israel Ostrowiecki, 55, were on their second day aboard the 120-foot dive vessel. According to family members, Rubin, his 19-year-old daughter, Lilith, and Ostrowiecki were part of a nine-member group that departed for a dive on the island's south side in one of the Aggressor's two smaller boats. It is unclear whether the two men -- apparently diving in different groups -- disappeared together or separately. Ironically, they disappeared at a dive site known as "Dos Amigos," meaning "two friends" in Spanish.

Wayne Hasson, of the Aggressor Fleet, said both men were experienced divers. The two failed to join the others after the group completed a 50-minute dive in 80 feet of water. Later, Hasson blamed the men's disappearance on "human error."

"You can't blame anybody except the people who didn't come up," he said in a newspaper interview. "They're to blame," he concluded, based on crew reports and interviews with passengers. He declined to share copies of witnesses' statements.

But Ostrowiecki's 24-year-old son, Alexandre, also citing eyewitness reports, blames the Aggressor for failing to use the buddy system, failing to check for currents before the dive, lack of fuel on the dive skiff to search for the missing divers, lack of spare air tanks on board the skiff to conduct follow-up search dives, and lack of a radio on board the skiff to call for help once the divers' absence was noted.

"They were diving in a dangerous place with unpredictable currents and tides," Ostrowiecki said. "They most likely became lost and separated."

Hasson insisted that both men were supposed to be diving with buddies and that the skiff did have a radio, which was immediately used to initiate the company's lost diver protocol. "This is the first time this has happened to us in 20 years of diving," he said. "We have all the security procedures in place, and everyone on that boat is thoroughly trained in what to do." Yet something went terribly wrong and two divers were lost.

Diving can be a dangerous sport -- as your life insurance agent will tell you -- and we all accept a certain level of risk each time we enter the water. But a liveaboard or resorts catering to divers must be prepared for emergencies, even if they are rare.

-- Ben Davison

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