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July 1998 Vol. 13, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die

Part III, have you ever run out of air?

from the July, 1998 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When I meet someone who is not a diver, I’m frequently asked, “have you ever run out of air?”

Certainly not, I say, because it should flat-out never happen. And it shouldn’t, but it does all the time, especially to inexperienced divers. Here are some “insufficient air” cases taken from DAN’s 1998 and 1997 reports of diving deaths in America.

A newly-certified 50-year-old male with only five dives under his belt went diving with his buddies. During the first dive, he finished with a nearly empty tank. On the second dive he ran out of air again but got separated from his buddy. Another diver found him floating beneath the surface, unconscious and without his regulator in his mouth. He couldn’t be resuscitated. His weights had been incorrectly attached so that the quick-release buckle would not operate.

Sometimes an out-of-air diver refuses aid. This fellow, with eight lifetime dives, went to 123 feet for twenty minutes. He ran out of air and refused to buddy-breathe, but he did accept his buddy’s spare air. During the ascent, he panicked and headed back to depth. When he was found two days later, he was still wearing his 46-pound weight belt.

A 49-year-old certified diver made a wreck dive to 70 feet for twenty-three minutes. He signaled to his buddy that he was out of air but declined to share air. As they ascended, he lost consciousness and had to be towed to the boat. Resuscitation was unsuccessful. A malfunctioning regulator may have contributed to the decedent’s difficulty while at depth.

While a diver may be experienced in some situations, diving in conditions for which one is untrained or unprepared can be dangerous. This 32-year-old certified diver without cave training was in a freshwater spring when he decided to enter a cave. He found an air pocket within the cave, removed his regulator from his mouth, gasped for air, and panicked. His buddy attempted to get him to take an octopus without success. He was pulled from the cave and could not be resuscitated at the surface.

Of course, this case has an element of panic, which shows up frequently in people who drown. When someone panics, their behavior may become bizarre. Unless someone can help them, they can get into serious trouble.

Consider this 26-year-old certified diver who had made 30 lifetime warm water dives. She undertook a dive in an extremely cold freshwater lake to visit a wreck at 140 feet. At 70 feet, during her descent down the anchor line, she inexplicably spit her regulator out and panicked. Her buddy gave her his octopus, but she spit that out as well and began to drift away from the line. He went to the surface for help, and two divers entered the water and found her on the bottom. Surface resuscitation was unsuccessful. She still had 1800 psi in her tank.

A 54-year-old woman with minimal diving experience was diving on a wreck at 90 feet. For unknown reasons, she removed her regulator from her mouth while on the bottom. An instructor took her to the surface, but resuscitation was unsuccessful.

A 33-year-old male with moderate diving experience was on a large dive boat but diving alone. When he did not return, the crew conducted a search and found him unconscious in a cavern at 50 feet. His BC would not hold air and his first stage was incorrectly attached, which may have resulted in a large air leak, emptying his tank.

When someone panics,
their behavior may
become bizarre.Unless
someone can help
them, they can get into
serious trouble.

A 14-year-old certified diver with minimal diving experience made a wreck dive to 140 feet with his father and several other divers. After an uneventful first dive, they realized the anchor was entangled on the wreck, so they decided to make the second dive to free the anchor in the process. During ascent, the 14-year-old motioned to another diver that he was out of air. While he buddy-breathed off the other diver’s backup air source, he was unable to continue the ascent due to being overweighted. The spare air ran out and the assisting diver lost consciousness as he headed to the surface. The 14-year-old’s father, who had exited the water, went back down to help his son. Both the father and son were found unconscious at 140 feet and died. The diver who had rendered assistance was treated for an embolism, and the two other divers required treatment for symptoms of decompression sickness.

Yes, these father and son cases are tragic, but one wonders why fathers expose their sons to such dangers. Nonetheless, if there is a reason to run out of air, I suppose trying to save your son qualifies. An inexperienced diver got lost in a cave and his 43-year-old father, with less than twenty lifetime dives and no cave-diving experience, went back to find him. He had little air left in his tank, and, though he made it out of the cave and back to shore, he lost consciousness and drowned. Next issue: embolism deaths: and a couple of tips on preventing them.

— Ben Davison

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