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January 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 28, No. 1   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Death in Belize from Exploding Tanks

from the January, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In the late afternoon of October 8, a loud explosion was heard around the town of San Pedro on Belize's Ambergris Caye. It occurred at the Amigos del Mar dive shop, and took the life of Hector "Chapin" Duran, who runs the tank compression unit. Duran, 39, was apparently filling dive tanks when one of them exploded, causing the wooden building to rock and shooting tank fragments out the door and into the water. A tank shard disemboweled Duran, causing a fatal injury. The police report stated that he was "seen lying face up, motionless, with a large cut wound over the abdominal area and the right side of his chest area, and a large cut wound to the palm of the right hand, with the right thumb severed."

Undercurrent senior editor Vanessa Richardson went diving with Amigos del Mar a few years ago, and remembers that the dive shop's air fill area is in an open space of the shop, close to where divers mill around before and after dives. Go into a properly constructed fill room in a U.S. dive shop, and you'll often see cylinders submerged in a reinforced tank filled with water, to prevent overheating and explosions. Nevertheless, dive shops and many liveaboards in Third World countries don't offer such protection and may fill unprotected tanks 10 feet away from you.

Besides the description of Duran's injuries, the authorities haven't released information about what caused the tank to explode. The television station News 7 Belize asked Fabrigas, a compressed gas manufacturer in Belize City, what could have gone wrong. Plant manager Ezquiel Ayala said one factor could be the accuracy of gauges. "My gauge could be showing 3,000 psi, but how accurate am I? It could be reading more, it could be reading less. We need to verify our gauges from time to time, and also ensure that we're not doing a 'fast fill.'If a tank exceeds 131 degrees Fahrenheit, the probability that it explodes or ruptured is increased . It could also be faulty equipment -- maybe the compressor is not set at a limit that it will automatically shut off."

Ayala told News 7 Belize that the regulation of safety standards for scuba gear in Belize has been lax, and there needs to be an active attempt by the relevant government authority to apply pressure to the dive industry. Amigos del Mar management sent out a press release, stating that it has cooperated with all relevant authorities in the investigation and will continue to do so.

Mark Gresham, CEO of cylinder inspection firm PSI-PCI, tells us his company has been investigating the incident but doesn't have enough information to speculate on a cause. "We've always maintained that fill stations in close proximity to anyone, especially divers fore and aft of dives, should be avoided, as 90-plus percent of cylinder accidents occur during filling. Fill stations should be treated as nuclear exclusion areas during filling. The trained fill station operator is the only person exposed to the cylinders of 40 psi or greater, per U.S. OSHA law -- which we know is not followed in most locations, especially those outside of the U.S."

So, my fellow divers, when the tanks are being filled, find a better place to hang out.

-- Ben Davison

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