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January 2004 Vol. 19, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die: Part II

in over their heads

from the January, 2004 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Among the American diving fatalities reported by DAN for the year 2001, several incidents involved divers who were diving way beyond their levels of expertise. Some were uncertified and shouldn't have been diving in the first place, as with a 17-year-old with no training who was collecting sand dollars in 10 feet of water off a private boat with another inexperienced diver. She did not wear fins and began the dive with only a partially full tank. The two divers held hands during the dive, but she let go at the surface and was not seen again until they recovered her body eight hours later.She drowned.

Some trained divers decide to go far beyond their capabilities, as did two who died in their first cave diving experience in Royal Spring, FL, after getting their open water certifications the previous day. Mark Anthony Granger, 19, and William Anthony Ridenour, 34, of Kingsland, GA, entered a freshwater spring along with their instructor and the instructor's 12-year-old son. This was not a planned cave dive, but the two newly certified divers separated from the instructor and his son and on their own entered the cave system. They apparently got lost and ran out of air. Their bodies were recovered the next day, approximately 500 feet from the cave entrance.

(This death lead to a lawsuit by the parents of the deceased, Donnie and Gwen Granger, against The Divers Den in Kingsland, GA, instructor Christopher Whitlock, and PADI, claiming negligent supervision led to their son's death. The parties settled last October, and though the details were not revealed Woody Wilner, attorney for the Grangers, said the settlement was six figures. The men were missing more than 16 hours when their bodies were found. Wilner said, "These were brandnew divers. They needed to be watched." Florida Times-Union)

With no formal training in cave diving, a 23-year-old divemaster made a deep Nitrox cave dive with six others, none of whom had cave diving training. They went to 150 feet and, while six divers made it out, the divemaster didn't. His body was recovered 1,000 feet into the cave, his tank empty. Nitrox at that depth can lead to oxygen toxicity, which may have contributed to his death.

An experienced 31-year-old certified cave diver made a cave dive with five other divers. The dive was beyond his cave experience and visibility was poor. He swam ahead of the others and took a side route into a restricted passage at 270 feet. Separated from the group, he disappeared and his body was never recovered.

This 46-year-old certified cave diver with extensive diving experience made an initial dive into a cave system with a buddy but chose to do a second dive without a buddy. After two hours of bottom time, his buddy called for assistance. Recovery divers found the decedent approximately 1,100 feet into the cave with entanglement between his safety reel and the guideline. An investigation revealed that the decedent did not use a continuous guideline for the dive. His tanks were empty.

Egregious Entanglements

Kelp can be beautiful, but it also can kill. A 57-year-old certified diver with three years of experience made a dive to 40 feet to collect sea urchins without a dive buddy. He did not return from the dive, and the body was recovered from the kelp bed the next day. The diver's tank was empty. Another 33-year-old male with no documented dive certification made a night dive from a boat but became separated from his buddy. The dive buddy returned to the boat and waited a short time before taking the boat back to shore. He did not notify the local police until after he had already returned home, several hours later. The body was recovered four days later. The autopsy findings were consistent with drowning due to entanglement in kelp, and the decedent's blood alcohol level was three times the legal limit for driving.

Wreck penetrations are always dangerous, especially for those who don't learn by their mistakes. A 26- year-old with open-water and Nitrox certification, and approximately 70 lifetime dives, made a deep air dive to 231 feet in fresh water to take pictures of a shipwreck. His equipment became entangled on the wreck early in the dive, but his buddy helped him to get loose. When the dive buddy ascended, the decedent did not follow him. After a decompression stop, the buddy surfaced and asked for assistance. Divers found the body entangled on the outer structure of the wreck several hours later. Clearly, the victim failed to learn from his previous entanglement.

Let Instructors Instruct

When divers with little or no qualifications take on the role of instructor, the results can sometimes be disastrous. That's what happened when an experienced, certified, 48-year-old diver took a 40-year-old woman with no formal dive training underwater using surface-supplied air. The air source was one long hose attached to a tank that split into two separate regulator lines. A passerby notified authorities that there had been no activity on the anchored boat for more than a day. Police divers found the bodies of the drowned divers under the boat.

One 23-year-old male did not have documented open-water certification or cave diving training. Yet his dive buddies claimed he was the most experienced cave diver of the group, and they were learning from him. After more than an hour at a depth of 14 feet, the divers tried to enter a very narrow tunnel while exploring a narrow freshwater cave system. They were unsuccessful, and the other divers decided to head back, but the decedent made one final attempt. He became wedged in the tunnel, and the other divers could not physically get him out. It took recovery divers two days and the assistance of heavy equipment to extricate his body.

Next Issue: Dropping Weights

-- Ben Davison

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