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August 1999 Vol. 14, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die

embolisms and boating accidents

from the August, 1999 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Unlike mass-market dive magazines that shy away from the topic of dive accidents and deaths, Undercurrent regularly reports on such case studies. Since many dive accidents occur because the diver made a critical error, we want our readers to be forewarned so that you don't become a statistic.

The good news is that dive deaths are declining. 57 American divers died in 1997, down from 85 in 1996 and 104 in 1995. Thatís a dramatic reduction from mid-70s highs that occasionally exceeded 140 deaths per year.

In this first installment of our series, weíll focus on dive deaths attributable to embolism and boating accidents. Most cases cited will come from the Diverís Alert Network 1997 case studies. All editing and commentary are solely ours.


While ďthe bendsĒ gets plenty of press as a killer of divers, itís rare indeed when a sport diver dies from the bends. Embolism is the killer, bends the injurer. For example, in the 57 American dive fatalities in 1997, only one was attributable to the bends. However, out of 972 injury cases, 820 were attributable to the bends, 68 to embolism (and 84 uncertain).

When DCS does result in death, the victim usually succumbs to complications of a prolonged hospitalization and the multiple medical problems that accompany the process (e.g., respiratory distress syndrome, pulmonary embolism, etc.). However, in the single fatality in 1997, the diver died of severe DCS shortly after completing his dives.

While the deceased was a very experienced male, age 48, his dives were indeed unwise. He made seven consecutive dives to an average depth of 90 fsw, staying down in most cases until he was low on air. Spearfishing, he had found a mother lode of game fish. He dived alone, while a nondiver waited in the boat, which had no radio. After the dives, he didnít feel well, so he reentered the water to ďdecompress.Ē Barely able to get back into the boat, he asked the other person to head back to shore. With the assistance of the U.S. Coast Guard, he was taken to a recompression chamber, where he died.

While embolism usually kills the inexperienced who run out of air and panic, in 1997 many of the 12 divers who succumbed to an embolism were experienced. In one case a 38-year-old male, a longtime diver, joined two others in making three dives below 140'. During the ascent from the third dive, he stayed below the other two after they agreed to ascend. When the two began their safety stops he was already at the surface, where he died shortly afterwards.

An experienced 58-year-old male was making his second dive of the day to 91 fsw. During the first dive, he ran out of air and needed to buddy-breathe. On the second dive, he entered the water with two other divers, neither of whom was designated as his buddy. At the completion of the second dive, he was seen on the surface, apparently doing well, but soon he appeared to be disoriented, then lost consciousness. He died en route to a facility with a recompression chamber. As it turned out, his tank from the second dive was empty, as was the tank from the first dive. No doubt he rushed to the surface when he had problems breathing. While the diver was experienced, running out of air was an unnecessary and foolish act.

A 33-year-old male diver with two years of experience and divemaster certification was at 190 feet with three other divers. While apparently having equipment problems, he lost consciousness. The other divers unsuccessfully attempted buddy breathing with him, then inflated his buoyancy compensator, sending him to the surface in an uncontrolled ascent. He died of pulmonary barotrauma.

A 47-year-old experienced male, who dived to 95 fsw without a buddy, returned to the boat. He reported he had seen a shark, panicked, and made a rapid ascent. He soon lost consciousness and could not be resuscitated.

When some divers panic, they get rid of their regulators. Itís a panic reaction that was first observed among firefighters breathing from oxygen tanks while fighting fires. Divers often react similarly. A 25-year-old student in an initial open water course was making his last dive before certification. During emergency ascent training from 20 feet he spit out his regulator. He was confused and disoriented on the surface, complained of numbness, and rapidly lost consciousness. Resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

In this case, the deceased was a 36-year-old male who had made less than 20 dives. After an initial dive to 82 fsw, he and his buddy made a second dive to 130 fsw. He seemed to have problems with his gear, then ascended rapidly. His buddy helped him on the boat and called for assistance. He was airlifted to a medical facility, but he died en route.

Every year, it seems, fathers contribute to the deaths of their untrained sons. In this case, a 12- year-old boy had no formal dive training but had made a dozen dives with his father. Sometimes he used his own regulator, but often he would descend and share an air source with his father. On this dive, he went to twenty feet, sharing his fatherís air. The boy surfaced with his father directly behind him, but unbeknownst to his father held his breath. He screamed upon reaching the surface, lost consciousness, and died.

In 1997, three divers lost their lives when hit by a boat, two when a running boat propeller hit their heads ó or their heads hit a running boat propeller.

This 39-year-old male had made 30 lifetime dives but none in the past three years. He entered the water with his girlfriend, but when she did not descend with him he returned to the surface. She had panicked and required assistance from the boat crew to get her into the boat. The crew did not see her buddy, so they assumed that he had descended to join the group. When he was missing after the dive, they searched, finding his body four hours later. He had a blunt trauma to the head, presumably caused by contact with the boat in rough seas.

This 26-year-old male was an experienced and frequent diver. He made a short, shallow dive, but surfaced far from his dive flag. As he hit the surface, a powerboat struck him and caused severe injuries. They pronounced him dead at a local hospital.

A 71-year-old female certified diver had a fair amount of experience but had not been diving during the previous year. As she was completing her second dive of the day, she was ascending when the boat operator, who had been moving around to pick up a diver, put the boat into gear. She ascended directly into the propeller. It killed her instantly.

In this case, of course, the boat captain has a share of the blame. However, it raises an extreme cautionary note to divers ó never, ever, surface near a propeller, even if the engine is not running.

ó Ben Davison

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