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June 2001 Vol. 16, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die: Part I

5,000 dives and, sadly, he still panicked

from the June, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

We believe that if we shed light on individual diving deaths and accidents, we can help educate you so that you donít repeat the mistakes of divers who have gone before. To do so, we rely on specific cases from DAN, the South Pacific Underwater Medical Society (SPUMS), and several other countries. These cases come from DANís 1999 reports.

One curious element shows up in a lot of deaths. When a diver is found dead, his regulator is often not in his mouth. A regulator can fall from a slack jaw, but sometimes a diver will inappropriately remove his or her regulator.

For example, a 37-year-old female was making her first resort course dive. She descended to 20 FSW with her boyfriend as a buddy. She immediately became uncomfortable and spit out her regulator. When her buddy tried to help her she knocked his regulator out of his mouth. She lost consciousness and was helped to the surface, but not quickly enough to avoid drowning.

Why would a diver do such a thing? In research conducted by Dr. William P. Morgan, director of the Sport Psychology Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, discovered that anxious individuals exercising on a treadmill often remove their oxygen face mask if they have the sensation of suffocating. He reports that if a firefighter wearing a respirator gets anxious and feels respiratory distress, he may remove his face mask and cut off his air supply. Itís a tragic move. Rescuers sometimes find dead firefighters with their face mask removed, although air remains in their tank. Indeed, divers who panic about running out of air are often seen by their colleagues pulling their masks off or their regulators out.

Even removing oneís regulator on the surface can be dangerous. In this case, the diver may not have panicked, but might have thought the dive was over. A 39-year-old diver with advanced certification and 25 dives, made a wreck dive with a large group. After 20 minutes into an uneventful dive to 90 FSW, the divemaster noticed the diver had only 800 psi of air left and sent him to the surface. After completing a safety stop, he surfaced and other divers taking a safety stop, saw him holding onto a float. Yet, when they did a head count on the boat later, he was missing. Searchers found him at 111 FSW, unconscious, with his regulator out of his mouth. He had drowned.

“Divers who panic about running out of air
are often seen by their colleagues pulling
their masks off or their regulators out.”

A 43-year-old diver with significant experience made a dive to 40 FSW for 30 minutes. She appeared to have difficulty breathing, and spit her regulator out after reaching the surface. She lost consciousness and drowned.

The threat of entanglement

There was a day when a diver wouldnít be seen without a foot long dagger strapped to his inner thigh. No more. Yet, divers without knives or shears can get into trouble. These cases serve as warnings when going into water where entanglement is a possibility.

The kelp beds of the West Coast, however beautiful, frequently become graveyards. The thick, tough and rubbery strands of kelp are not forgiving. This 41-year- old had advanced open water certification but was an infrequent diver. After a shore entry, he had difficulty equalizing his ears, so the other divers including his buddy, went ahead. When he did not return after the dive, it took 24 hours to find his body. His regulator was entangled in kelp. He had tried to drop his weight belt, but it had become entangled in his BC strap.

Getting tangled in nearly invisible fishing line can be especially difficult, since tugging only tightens it. If one cannot cut free, then one must try to climb out of his equipment, free the line, and carry his tank to the surface while breathing. That would be too much to ask of this 41- year-old newly certified diver making his fifth dive. He made a shore entry lake dive to 100 feet with two other divers but they became separated. A buddy found the decedent unconscious, with his regulator out, at 141 feet. Fishing line was wrapped around his equipment and the buddy could not bring him to the surface. They recovered his body three days later.

Two experienced cave divers, one 52, the other 46, went to 78 feet in a cave for 135 minutes on nitrox. Their guideline broke and they became entangled in it. Visibility was nearly zero. The bodies of the divers were recovered the next day when someone realized that they were missing. Both divers were out of air; one had removed his tanks, perhaps to get untangled or to exit through tight spaces.

Unfortunately, there are always quirky divers who seem to create their own trouble. This 65-year- old had plenty of experience. He frequently went out on a boat alone to dive solo ó he liked to breathe his tank down to 200 psi ó to collect lobster, which he did on this fatal day. He attached a floating dive flag to his buoyancy compensator by a rope. Two days after he was missing, fishermen found his body floating on the surface, entangled in the rope. His tank was empty. He was dressed in long pants and a shirt for thermal protection.

Panic, the starting point

Panic doesnít kill people, but itís often the first in a series of events that lead to death. Fortunate divers save themselves by remaining calm enough to make rational decisions. The more experienced a diver is, the more likely the right decision will come easily. Yet even highly experienced divers can panic, as this case shows ----- none of us is immune.

A 32-year-old fellow had made more than 5000 dives. While a cave diving novice, he was under training for trimix diving. Entering the water from the shore, he went to 215 feet to a cave entrance, where visibility was poor. He had difficulty with his tank and regulator configuration and his buddy tried to assist him. Yet , for some reason he panicked, then struggled with his buddy and the two became separated. They recovered his body the next day.

This 27-year-old, who had completed fewer than 20 dives, was making her first night dive. For an unknown reason, she panicked during ascent, knocking her buddyís regulator out of his mouth. As he concentrated on getting his alternate air source out, the two became separated. A safety diver pulled her back to the boat, but resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

A 32-year-old advanced certified diver made a wreck dive to 100 FSW in a large group. On the bottom, he somehow lost a fin. He made a panicked ascent to 60 FSW, then began buddy breathing off another diverís pony bottle. He lost consciousness and was brought to the surface where he died from drowning.

This case of panic was probably helped along because the diver had snorted cocaine, a drug that increases heart rate. People who use it on land can get freaky, so imagine what a little pressure might do. This 34-year- old had only five dives under his belt. He and his buddy made a shore entry in a pond, then dropped to 25 feet for 30 minutes. He had difficulty with his gear ó cocaine again? ó which became compounded by stirred up silt. He swam to the surface with his buddy to reorient his gear, but then descended with the snorkel in his mouth instead of his regulator. He panicked and struggled to get to the surface, somehow losing a fin. He dropped below the surface, and was pulled from the water, unconscious, by another diver. An investigation revealed the decedent had his snorkel on the right side instead of the left, where he could have mistaken the mouthpiece for his regulator mouthpiece. His buoyancy compensator was on incorrectly. The toxicology results noted a nasal swab showed traces of cocaine indicating recent use .

Next issue: Part II

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