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January 2006 Vol. 32, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Dead in Belize Waters

Divers drift three days off Placencia

from the January, 2006 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

John Bain, a lawyer from Kansasville,WI, visiting Belize in October, drove to Placencia, on the southern coast, hoping to get in a few good dives. Looking for a dive operator, he came across a beach shack belonging to Advanced Divers and returned the next morning to book a trip. Six snorkelers and three other scuba divers joined him: Nancy Masters, a nurse from Portland, Oregon; Abigail Brinkman, a medical student at Indiana University, and Yutaka Maeda, a Japanese tourist.

Bain discovered that the BCD he’d rented from Advanced
Diving was full of holes, so he had to keep inflating it.
Hungry, thirsty, sunburned and chafed by his wet suit, he
drifted alone for nearly three days.

Had Bain and the others read the April 2004 Undercurrent, they would have seen the Thumbs Down we awarded Advanced Divers for an earlier incident that included an engine failure and swamped boat, and learned just how unsafe they were. Had they seen the weather reports, they would have known that a small craft advisory was in effect. In an exclusive interview, Bain told Undercurrent that Advanced Divers owner Vince Cabral agreed to take them out, with no warning about the conditions.

The trip was ill-fated from the start. Cabral and his dive guide, Henry “Bee Bee” Tucker, loaded everyone into a small boat for the ride to Silk Cay, 20 miles out. A few minutes from the mainland, Cabral realized the boat was overloaded and headed back. He switched everyone into a larger boat, fueled up and started again. Yet the motor quit two-thirds of the way to Silk Cay, restarting only after Cabral fiddled with it. When they finally reached the Cay, Cabral went ashore with the snorkelers, and Tucker motored the divers toward Gladden Spit. Then the motor died for the last time.

Bain told Undercurrent, “It was obvious that Tucker didn’t know what he was doing,” trying to restart the engine. Tucker ignored Bain’s request to drop anchor, but after drifting “a mile or so,” says Bain, Tucker finally threw out the anchor. The chain snapped. Tucker raised the radio antenna to call for help, but the radio was on the fritz. Bain worked on the radio while repeatedly cranking the ignition as Tucker continued trying to restart the motor.

A Fatal Error: They Left the Boat

Silk Cay was now more than two miles away, and getting smaller, says Bain. Masters, wearing shorts and a shirt over her swimsuit, told the others she thought they should swim to the cay. Brinkman, 28, wearing only a bikini, was frightened but decided to go along. Tucker later told Belize authorities and the media that he had warned the divers against leaving the vessel, but Bain said, “He never said a word, and he helped us on with our dive gear.” The group began gearing up, without much further communication.

Once in the water, says Bain, “the current was stronger than any of us realized.” The divers were swimming up current toward the cay while the boat drifted in the opposite direction. The divers quickly became separated, with Maeda drifiting away. Bain tried unsuccessfully to lead him to the others, but soon everyone had split apart.

“We were going at different paces,” Masters recalled. “Abby was really scared, so I tried to find her. I never did. I never saw her or the others again.”

Bain soon lost sight of both the cay and the boat, and discovered that the BCD he’d rented from Advanced Diving was full of holes, so he had to keep inflating it. Hungry, thirsty, sunburned and chafed by his wet suit, Bain drifted alone for nearly three days. When he finally emptied his tank, he mouth-inflated his leaky BCD, while dodging jellyfish and wondering if he’d ever be rescued. After nightfall, he shivered uncontrollably, wheezing from the salt water he had ingested. Only thoughts of his family kept him going. After his second night in the water, Bain recalls, “I was becoming resigned to another night and didn’t know, really, if I could make it.” Fortunately, sailors in a catamaran rescued him.

Describing her own experience to the Portland Oregonian, Masters said, “The waves are huge and they’re smashing over you and hitting you in the head.” The nights were particularly long. “You’re thinking the sun is going to come up any minute and it doesn’t. That’s when you realize you’re stuck.” Masters slept for a few minutes at a time, but the waves kept her awake. She started hallucinating, thinking she saw an island to one side, a buoy to the other. A couple of ships passed by without spotting her. Once, large fish circled her, so she kicked at them until they finally swam off. “I couldn’t waste time thinking about sharks,” she said later. “If you’re thinking about sharks, how could you do anything else?”

On the third day, a plane with a red cross flew overhead. Masters waved one of her yellow fins, but the plane kept going. She started to doubt anyone was looking for her or the other divers. A 3-foot-long plant floated by, perhaps something that had fallen off a ship. Dehydrated, she broke it open and drank liquid from the inside. “I didn’t care what it tasted like,” she said. “I was glad to get something in my stomach.”

Finally, the plane reappeared and dropped a red dinghy. But, it landed down current and floatedaway. Nevertheless, for the first time, she had hope. Eventually a Belize Defense Forces boat arrived. Masters handed up her diving equipment and climbed aboard, relishing a drink of water. The BDF also rescued Maeda.

Rescuers got to Abby Brinkman too late. She had drowned.

Back on shore, Bain learned that Cabral had swum to another island and reached a ranger station, where he arranged to have the snorkelers returned to Placencia. Tucker drifted for more than twenty hours, finally swimming three miles to Northeast Caye on the Glover’s Reef atoll. Astonishingly, neither Cabral nor Tucker reported the divers as missing, Bain said. Only an anonymous call to the U.S. embassy from a resort employee got the search started.

Bain was treated for hypothermia, dehydration, sunburn and a jellyfish sting. He flew back to Wisconsin after being released.

Within days, the Tour Operating Licensing Committee of the Belize Tourism Board voted unanimously to shut down Advanced Diving. Cabral and Tucker have been permanently banned from running commercial dive tours. Officials said the strict penalties were based on the police investigation of the October accident and a previous accident when an Advanced Diving boat capsized, injuring several tourists. Cabral and Tucker could face criminal charges including negligence, manslaughter and operating without valid operator and guide licenses.

Tracy Taegar-Panton, Director of the Belize Tourism Board, has announced the formation of “a safety and security task force . . . .to ensure that we look at the issues where negligence is not a factor, to look at the issues of weather conditions and how it impacts our operations and what steps should be put in place.”

But that may not be enough for John Bain, who insists that the negligence of Cabral and Tucker led to the death of Abby Brinkman. “Divers assume that local operators will look out for their safety,” he points out. Attorney Bain has vowed to find out what sort of diver safety regulations Belize has in place, and to decide whether they’re strong enough. If they do seem strong enough, Bain wants to know, “why aren’t they better enforced?” Hopefully, his efforts will help to prevent future lapses in safety procedures. “We want to create as much good as possible out of this tragedy,” he says.

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