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September 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 27, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Anatomy of a Dive Death Investigation

from the September, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

We have run many stories about how dive deaths are investigated, both here in the U.S. and in other countries overseas. It's a common lament in this country that we often don't have much public information about deaths to help divers or dive agencies understand the causes -- and how to correct them. This story, which ran in the Caymanian Compass, shows how much information can be provided by a coroner's report -- and how it can change opinions and even court rulings -- on unfortunate dive deaths. In the case of Vickilee Hettenbaugh, her death last year in Grand Cayman was ruled to be a "misadventure" on her part, after a coroner's jury heard details of her dive and the results of her autopsy report.

Hettenbaugh, 54, was a Florida native on vacation in Grand Cayman, making a shore dive off West Bay with her husband, Donn William Berg, on the morning of February 8, 2011. They had their own gear, but rented tanks and weights from Divetech. Steve Chenoweth, a dive instructor at Divetech, testified that the couple had signed the requisite forms with their dive certification numbers, and, from the way they assembled their equipment, he was confident they were experienced.

Around 11.15 a.m., he heard a cry for help and saw Berg supporting Hettenbaugh on the surface, about 75 feet from shore. He swam out, putting a life ring under her head to keep it out of the water. Divetech staff helped get her to shore and administered CPR until the ambulance arrived. Hettenbaugh was taken to George Town Hospital, where she was pronounced dead. A police officer secured her equipment, had it photographed and took it to Scott Slaybaugh, deputy director for the Department of Environment, who reported that the dive equipment was in good working order and well-maintained.

Berg told police he and his wife dived about 12 times per year, and this was their third trip to Cayman. Hettenbaugh had been diving since 2002, was a competent and cautious diver, and he never saw her panic. She was in good health, and while she had occasional migraines and took half a sleeping tablet for them, she didn't do so while in Cayman. On that fateful day, they had decided to dive a shelf about 300 yards from shore, and go down 60 feet. She needed about 13 pounds of weight. On their return, Berg was ahead of her, and when he looked back, she was swimming normally. When he looked back again, he did not see her. He was at 30 feet when he looked up and saw her on the surface. He inflated his BCD to get to her quickly. Hettenbaugh's regulator was out of her mouth, and her spare regulator was still clipped to her chest. Berg tried to give her "mouth to mouth," but couldn't get her to breathe, and so called for help.

Richard L. Laube, another Cayman tourist, told police he and a friend were diving with underwater scooters and chatted with Berg and Hettenbaugh before the dive. The couple went into the water before he did, and when he went out to the wall, Laube saw two divers coming down to 50 or 60 feet. "We waved to them, and I think the male waved back to us," he told police. "When we saw them in the water, they looked fine."

Coroner Shravana Jyoti testified about the autopsy he conducted. External examination showed no evidence of violence, trauma or fracture. Tests for alcohol and recreational drugs were negative. He said he found multiple tears over the lobes of both lungs, and multiple small areas of hemorrhage inside, along with frothy fluid. The combined weight of the lungs was 1,800 grams; the expected weight would have been around 850 grams. The multiple tears and heemorrhages were highly suggestive of acute pulmonary barotrauma, which is damage to the lungs from rapid or excessive pressure changes. The frothy fluid in the trachea was highly suggestive of drowning.

The physical cause of death was reported as acute pulmonary barotrauma and sea water drowning. Jyoti listed as a significant contributing factor "rapid ascent while scuba diving from a depth of 60-30 feet to the surface. Trigger unknown."

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