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April 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 4   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die: Part II

overweighting and uninflated BCDs can cause big problems

from the April, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Every year, we highlight specific diver deaths from the Diver Alert Network’s annual report on accidents and fatalities. In reviewing their latest report, which listed deaths that occurred in 2006, it’s striking to see how many that occurred on or just below the surface, most of them drownings.

In diving’s formative days, flotation, not buoyancy control, was the purpose of a life jacket. Early divers used the Mae West, adopted from the military. Then came the Fenzy, with an air bottle for inflation and the horse collar, which could be inflated orally or with a CO2 cartridge. It floated a diver with his mouth and nose clear of the water. Life-saving became secondary in the 70s with the introduction of the Scubapro Vest and subsequent designs. Today, as Undercurrent’s technical editor John Bantin says, “None of the BCDs can be guaranteed to keep a diver from drowning. It depends very much on the weight of the tank/s, the amount of weights, and the manner in which weights are distributed around the diver. Big wing-style BCDs are notorious for putting a diver face down when fully inflated but there is no general rule.”

To illustrate the problem, here are several cases where divers’ BCDs offered no help.

Judith Silcox, 47, was lobster diving in July with Ronald Maloy, 53, from an anchored boat near Florida’s Big Pine Key. Because they were the only two on board, no one knows what happened to them in the water. Silcox was found floating face down by boaters passing by around 10:30 a.m. Her BCD was inflated and she still had on 16 pounds of weight. The boaters tried to get Silcox breathing and conscious, but it was too late. Maloy’s body, with all dive gear and tank still on, was found four days later when it drifted ashore on Cook Key.

This 44-year-old man with 20 lifetime dives was on a multiday dive trip with three other divers. After a dive to 77 feet and a safety stop at 18 feet, he surfaced in obvious distress. His buddy deployed a safety sausage, but he sank below the surface. Finally, his buddy got him to the boat but he did not regain consciousness. While he died of an embolism, his sinking below the surface delayed any chance of rescue and resuscitation.

A dive isn’t over until one is safely in the boat. Climbing up a ladder with an uninflated BCD while still wearing weights is risky business. A 62-year-experienced diver climbing back into the boat lost consciousness and fell back into the water. He then dropped below the surface, inhaling water. While he ultimately died of an embolism, this is another case where potential treatment may have been slowed because of inattention to dive gear.

Watch Your Weights

Of course, for a BCD to be fully effective, a diver needs to drop his weights. Too many divers, now deceased, didn’t. In these cases, the diver’s failure to drop his weights contributed to his demise.

This 26-year-old made a solo, shore-entry dive into a river with a swift current. Immediately after descending, he returned to the surface calling for help. He then sank back below the surface, and his body wasn’t recovered until two days later. His gear was in good order but he was wearing 50 pounds of weight, none of which he had dumped during distress.

A 49-year-old openwater diver with 25 dives made a shore entry with his 17-year-old son into choppy water at Whaler’s Cove near Monterey, CA. The two dived to 80 feet, did a safety stop at 15 feet, then surfaced and swam toward shore. The father started having trouble breathing. He was wearing 31 pounds of weight but did not drop it. His son started towing him back but after the father lost consciousness, the son swam to shore alone and called 911. Rescuers recovered the diver, who was pronounced dead at the hospital.

This 35-year-old experienced divemaster was helping to teach an advanced openwater course when he descended to 130 feet, but he was overweighted and couldn’t get off the bottom without his buddy’s assistance. He was assisted up to 80 feet, and the class instructor took him to the surface. The diver may have lost consciousness during the quick ascent, and he was definitely unconscious at the surface, where he couldn’t be resuscitated. Nitrogen narcosis probably affected his judgment when it came to dropping weight.

This 39-year-old experienced diver panicked during a shore dive and grabbed at his buddy’s mask. He then lost consciousness and got separated from his buddy. Rescue divers found his body later that day; he was wearing 57 pounds in weights.

Note that in many of these cases, the people assisting the distressed divers most likely could have released the diver’s weights, but didn’t. And finally, to use an automatic inflator, there has to be air in the tank.

Steven McAuliss, 39, was drysuit diving in the St. Lawrence River near Rockport, Ontario. He made a shore entry into frigid waters with dive buddy Vaughan Brennan to dive the Kinghorn wreck, but he was overweighted for the dive to 88 feet. McAuliss and Brennan became separated during the dive, and two divers later found McAuliss, unconscious at 40 feet with his regulator out of his mouth. They were unable to inflate his BCD because his tank was empty. They dragged McAuliffe to shore but he was dead by drowning,

Not long ago, we got an e-mail from a diver who was astonished to learn that he could inflate his BCD orally if his automatic inflator didn’t work. While the point may not be relevant in this case, I suspect that it’s a skill, if even learned, that has been long forgotten by many divers.

- - Ben Davison

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