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February 2003 Vol. 18, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die, Part III: are you rusty?

are you rusty?

from the February, 2003 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Lots of divers make one dive trip a year and never put a regulator in their mouths the other fifty-one weeks. Many newly certified divers, after a few dives, think they're ready for any underwater challenge. Unless a diver is cautious, either practice can have deadly consequences.

According to the Diver's Alert Network compilation of 91 diving deaths in 2000, the proportion of fatalities was higher for divers who had either very few dives or very many years since initial training. As in previous years, the largest proportion of fatalities were those who had made the fewest dives in the preceding 12 months. Most appeared to have died on the first day, and all but eight fatalities occurred on the first dive. Here are some cases in point:

One 26-year-old male had been certified five years but had made only 15 dives, none in the past year. He entered the water with a group but without a buddy. After a 40-minute dive to 50 feet, he ascended to a safety stop at 15 feet, then made a rapid ascent to the surface, perhaps in panic. Shortly after reaching the surface, he took off his mask and removed his regulator from his mouth, then drowned, the victim of an embolism.

An experienced 55-year-old male certified diver who had made no dives in the previous six years descended to 50 feet from a boat near shore. His buddy was his brother and, due to poor visibility, the two decided to abort the dive shortly after reaching bottom. They became separated during ascent, and the decedent did not surface. Fishermen found the body four months later, 75 miles offshore. The equipment was functional but the decedent was overweighted.

During her first year after certification, a 53-year-old female made 10 dives. She was making a drift dive in 65 feet, and within 10 minutes of descending, she signaled to her buddy that she was out of air. She and her buddy shared air to the surface, where she vomited, lost consciousness, and could not be resuscitated. An equipment evaluation revealed greater than 2,000 psi remaining in the tank. She had apparently embolized, then drowned.

One diver became trapped in the
forward portion of the wreck,
and his buddy stayed to free him,
but he too ran out of air before
he could help.

This 29-year-old male had been certified six years but had made fewer than 10 dives. He made a dive to less than 20 feet with his wife, but panicked during the descent and was brought back to the boat unconscious. He had drowned.

Often, rusty divers compound their problems by being in poor physical shape as well, failing to accept that they're not fit to dive. For example, after receiving his open-water certification four months earlier, a morbidly obese 52-year-old male with 20 dives made a shore entry dive to 60 feet for 20 minutes. Wearing a drysuit, he made a rapid ascent and quickly became incapacitated on the surface. They pronounced him dead at a nearby hospital. Later it was learned he had a history of respiratory problems, including asthma, and he had used inhalers just before entering the water.

The moral is clear: if you haven't been in the water for a while, you need warmup dives, you need to know your equipment, and you need a competent buddy.

Riding the Air Elevator

When fatal incidents involve equipment, buoyancy compensator problems are the most common, with regulator problems next. Equipment is rarely the primary or secondary cause of fatality, but rather a contributor. For example, this 57-year-old male had been a certified diver for 14 years but had only 42 lifetime dives. He was gathering lobsters with a buddy at 15 feet when the two became separated. The divers surfaced separately but the decedent went below the surface after struggling with surface sea conditions. His body was found two hours later. He had improperly configured his buoyancy compensator and tank and most likely couldn't inflate the BC.

This 33-year-old male had advanced open-water certification and was a very experienced diver. He had not made any recent dives, however, and had little drysuit diving experience. He made a wreck penetration with a group of divers to 103 feet for 47 minutes before running out of air. He had difficulty with his buoyancy because he was unfamiliar with his drysuit. As the divers exited the wreck, the decedent became separated from his buddy and was unsuccessful switching to an alternate air source. They brought him to the surface, where he lost consciousness and resuscitation efforts failed.

Double deaths are especially disconcerting, especially in a case like this where a buddy's heroic effort failed. Two divers, one 52, the other 57, were experienced technical divers. On Nitrox, they penetrated a wreck at 80 feet. Visibility was very poor. One diver became entrapped in the forward portion of the wreck, and his buddy stayed to free him, but he too ran out of air before he could help. They recovered his body the same day. His buddy's body was pulled from a nearby compartment of the ship the next morning.

In another double fatality, two inexperienced divers were in the company of a dive guide, drifting in a strong current. Both ran low on air, so the divemaster motioned for them to rise for a safety stop, while he continued. He was the last person to see the divers and their bodies were never recovered.

Entanglement

Entanglement is often a problem. Those who dive among fishing lines, ropes, or kelp face special risks if they dive alone, as did this 24-yearold experienced diver. Entering from the shore into a thick kelp bed to hunt for lobsters, he became entangled. He was able to surface and shout for help, but then submerged again. A friend on shore saw him surface 50 feet offshore and called for help. Rescuers found him entangled in kelp at 30 feet; he couldn't be resuscitated.

A good knife might have got that diver out of the kelp, but entanglement may also lead to panic, which becomes the real cause of death. In this case, an obese 45-year-old female diver had not made a dive in two years. A student in an advanced openwater course, she was making a deep wreck dive with planned decompression stops. At the start of the dive, she returned to the boat to get more weight. Once on the wreck, her octopus became caught on the wreck, and for some reason -- most likely in a panic -- she removed her mask. Her buddy untangled her but couldn't get her mask back on her. She lost consciousness and was helped to the surface. While she had drowned, cardiac problems may have contributed.

A 50-year-old female divemaster was making a search-and-rescue training dive in a large lake. At the end of the dive, she signaled she was going to ascend and left her two dive buddies on the bottom at 35 feet. On the surface, she struggled in rough surface conditions, and the tenders in the boat were unable to pull her out of the water quickly. She had her regulator out of her mouth, despite several calls by the tenders to replace it, then lost consciousness before they brought her onto the boat. While she had several tissue injuries on her face, neck, and shoulders from banging against the boat, she had drowned, committing the fatal error of taking her regulator from her mouth before safely on the boat.

A 46-year-old male with a large group of divers was put in the water in an incorrect spot by the dive boat operator. Once the error was noticed, the divers were recalled and put in at another location. This diver, who had no buddy, was not missed until the end of the second dive. His body was never recovered, and he may have been left behind after the first dive.

This experienced 59-year-old male decided to celebrate the new millennium by making a shore-entry night dive in frigid waters. Just before the dive, he bumped his head and became very agitated but insisted on diving. After a dive to 65 feet for 28 minutes, the divers were exiting when this diver was seen, but then he drifted back into the channel. Rescue efforts were hindered by winds gusting to 80 mph, ice in the water, and a strong current. His body was never found.

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