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February 2007 Vol. 33, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die, Part III

bad, very bad decisions

from the February, 2007 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

This is the last in our three-part series based on actual 2004 cases from the Divers Alert Network (DAN). By presenting them, we hope to show the bad mistakes divers often make so you can avoid making them yourself.

Apart from divers who die of heart attacks, divers in nearly every fatal accident have one or more opportunities to make a live-saving decision. Instead, a bad decision or an error in judgment is fatal. As the cases listed below show, both experienced and novice divers make fatal errors. In its report of U.S. injuries and fatalities in 2004, DAN found that 45 percent of dead divers had been certified for a year or less. However, a quarter of them had been certified for a decade or more.

Even experienced solo divers can find themselves in these too-tight situations

Rising too fast and embolizing is often the cause of death and too often the rapid ascent is unavoidable. Consider the case of a 42-year-old male who had been certified for 20 years and made a solo dive from a boat to go spear fishing. His computer showed that he rose from 89 feet much too rapidly, embolized and drowned. While we will never know why he rose so rapidly that day, we do know that this diver habitually made rapid ascents, a habit that even divers fresh out of certification courses should know is asking for trouble.

Solo diving

If youíve been on a liveaboard or at a serious dive resort, you know that solo diving is commonplace and that skilled solo divers are self-sufficient and cautious ó because they have no one to turn to if things go wrong. DAN estimates that 10 percent of 2004 fatalities were solo divers, and another 10 percent were divers with a group or another buddy who decided to part ways. When their buddies couldnít keep up, either due to problems at descent or low oxygen at depth, these divers made the fatal mistake of going on alone. Throw in a mix of more advanced diving situations, and they should have thought twice.

A 40-year-old experienced male diver made a boat dive with Nitrox. He was with three other divers but essentially made a solo dive. He was found unconscious on the bottom and could not be resuscitated. According to his dive computer, this diver made a rapid descent to 55 feet, spent 30 minutes on the bottom and then rapidly ascended to 4 feet before heading back to the bottom, but his tank was nearly empty. He drowned, apparently after embolizing.

Of course, cave diving seems to be a stimulus for bad decisions, one reason that a diver who hasnít been trained as a cave diver needs to avoid the impulse to enter. Khrester Encanto, a 27-year-old Navy sailor who had completed his initial open-water certification just two weeks earlier, had no business entering an underwater cave system in the Crystal River north of Tampa. He was diving from a boat with a married couple, but the trio surfaced after the husband had equipment problems. He aborted his dive, so Encanto and the woman then dove again. The pair resurfaced and the woman boarded the boat, but Encanto decided to return to depth alone with only 1,000 psi in his tankóand did not return. Later that day, police divers found his body 35 feet below the surface, wedged into a tight hole. Encanto apparently had removed his BC and weight belt in an attempt to either enter the passage or get out of it.

Ten percent of DANís 2004 fatal cases involved cave diving, and four of the dead divers were trained and experienced in cave diving. Two of them, a 37-year-old male and a 53-year-old male, were a buddy pair entering a cave system with another two divers. Visibility was poor and they made a wrong turn. The other two divers made it out, but this pair ended up sharing air and eventually died in the cave when their breathing gas was exhausted. Their bodies were recovered 250 feet from the exit.

The other two fatalities were John Robinson, Jr., age 37 and Craig Simon, age 44, both experienced technical divers with cave diving certifications, who met their end at the famous Eagleís Nest underwater caves near St. Petersburg, Florida. The two were frequent dive buddies and entered the complex cave system using mixed gas that would allow them 2.5 hours of air. A search started when they didnít exit the water at the expected time. Robinsonís body was found the next day about 1,300 feet inside a cave, with both tanks out of oxygen. Authorities believe he became lost and disoriented by blinding silt as he tried unsuccessfully to navigate his way out of the caves. Simonís body wasnít found until three days later at 286 feet, entangled in his own line and empty gas tanks.

Even experienced solo divers can find themselves in these too-tight situations. A 45-year-old male with technical and cave diving certifications completed his first dive of the day with a group without incident, but he decided to go back down alone while the others were filling their tanks. He entered a cave system without a light or line, using a single tank. He got trapped and ran out of air. When the other divers went down to look for him, they found his body outside the cave entrance, and his regulator and empty tank inside the cave.

Strong currents can get rough

Shore diving has its own challenges, including strong currents and riptides. Divers trained in California or other areas with a rugged coast often get instruction on handling entries and exits, but divers trained in more placid waters often miscalculate the power of waves and the strength of currents or donít bother to look for slackwater entries and exits. Of the 2004 fatalities, 40 percent were shore divers. Again, solo diving and rough currents can be a bad mixónearly half of those divers went solo, and strong currents or rough seas were present in 30 percent of shore-diving fatalities. A 48-year-old male open-water diver with 50 lifetime dives made a solo, shore entry dive into a river, but the current was so strong that he quickly decided to abort the dive. Too late. He was found dead of drowning only seven feet from shore. His fins were missing, either because he tried to remove them to swim ashore or because they were simply lost in the rough current.

Heavy gear is also a key factor when trying to swim against a tide. An experienced 47-year-old male was solo diving for fossils in a river with strong currents and nearzero visibility. He was also weighed down by the heavy equipment he used for his task. His body was found in 30 feet of water four days later. Entrapment on the bottom may have been a factor in his drowning.

Rough seas call for good judgment. Two divers, age 41 and 53, both with little diving experience, made a shore entry with another diver into rough seas from a rocky area. The rough water tossed them against the rocks, essentially bludgeoning them, and both drowned.

Know your gear

Ill-fitting or improper gear annually plays a role in diver deaths, and there are always those divers who try to improve on equipment design, unwittingly creating a fatal configuration. An inexperienced 48-year-old diver made a solo, shore entry dive using a homemade harness to distribute the weights he wore. He surfaced and was heard to comment about his regulator. He dropped his weight belt but did not inflate his BC. After several tries to submerge, he finally went under and did not come back up. It appears his regulator got caught in his homemade harness and caused him to drown.

A 53-year-old female who had been certified for two years was two minutes into her dive when at 117 feet, she had difficulty using her regulator and drowned. It was later discovered that the regulator was missing a diaphragm seal. The woman owned the regulator, but itís unclear if she had used it for diving since the last routine maintenance.

This death illustrates what many divers have discovered: the most likely time a regulator will fail is during the first dive after maintenance, thanks to improper servicing. The first dive after any regulator servicing needs to be a cautious dive. And before you leave a shop with a serviced regulator, slap it on a tank, see if it freeflows, and take a few breaths. It still may not work properly at depth, but take the precaution.

Drinking, drugs and diving donít mix

And there are always those divers who discount the effect of alcohol or drugs, and think their diving skill will stand up to their impaired brains. A 53-year-old male had been certified more than 10 years ago but only had 5 or 6 lifetime dives. He entered the water alone, using surfacesupplied air to retrieve something that had gone over the side of his boat in 10 feet of water. He returned to the boat shortly after to adjust a leaking regulator and then descended again, overweighted and not wearing fins. His body was recovered later that day. Why would he enter the water ill equipped? How could he drown at such a shallow depth? The medical examiner found a load of cocaine in his system.

Brian Tinsdale was with three friends at 2 a.m. in a boat at Ginnie Springs near Gainesville, Florida, drinking beer before and between dives. The 24-year-old had been certified for two years, and made three short excursions of five to 10 minutes each into the 60-foot depth of Devilís Ear cave. He didnít surface after the fourth, and a rescue diver recovered his body from the cave an hour later. His tank was also empty, since he had used it for all four dives and began the last one with only 500 psi remaining. He had a blood alcohol level of .11, while .08 is considered too intoxicated to drive in most states.

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