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August 2001 Vol. 16, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die: Part II

spearfishing, jury rigging, surf dodging

from the August, 2001 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

A diver dies because of the mistakes he makes. Rarely is a diver not responsible for his own fate. With that in mind, we periodically publish summaries of deaths so that hopefully, each of us will learn from the tragic mistakes made by others. Here are some cases investigated by DAN in 1999.

Focusing On The Wrong Thing

People spearing fish occasionally become so focused on the fish they spear, that they jeopardize themselves. After spending 25 minutes at 78 feet, one experienced spearfisherman, a 76-yearold male, tried to help his buddy remove a fish from his spear. Struggling with the fish, they were unsuccessful, so he made a rapid ascent. Upon reaching the surface, he cried out for help before losing consciousness. He died of an air embolism.

In another case, a 44-year-old experienced dive instructor spearfishing on an oil rig at 190 feet speared an extremely large grouper. He ascended to his buddy at 130 feet and signaled that he planned to bring the fish to the surface. As he rose with the fish in tow, he struck his head on part of the oil rig. A third diver saw him surface as he was still struggling with the fish and speargun. He cried for help, then lost consciousness. When they recovered him 30 minutes later, his tank was empty and he had not dropped his weights. His head trauma contributed to his death by embolism.

Known for not paying attention to detail, he
had failed to turn on any of his three tanks
and his BC inflator hose was unattached.
He tried to remove his weight belt, but he had
tied it under his BC.

Head Injuries

Head injuries are more commonplace then one might imagine. Of course, anyone boat diving in rough seas must contend with the boat overhead. This 35- year-old fellow, who had only completed seven lifetime dives, went diving in rough water and a strong current. He made his first dive to 50 feet, which he quickly aborted for unknown reasons. On the second dive to the same depth, he became separated from his buddy and later was found floating unconscious near the boat. Apparently he surfaced quickly again, struck the boat with his head causing a severe injury, and subsequently drowned. Rugged surf is also a danger zone, requiring careful entry to avoid getting tossed about. Divers in states like California whose open water ocean training requires them to enter through surf, get special instruction on entering and exiting. Divers who are inexperienced in surf entry can face all sorts of obstacles. A 39-year-old woman entering the surf struck her head on some underwater object. The blow rendered her unconscious, and she subsequently drowned. In a similar case, a 55-year-old male entered rough surf with his buddy, but his buddy quickly returned to shore with an equipment problem. The decedent was later found in the surf, drowned, with a serious head injury caused by striking an unknown object underwater.

Gear, Unmaintained and Rigged Wrong

Each year several fatal accidents begin with an equipment problem. The problem usually stems from the diver failing to maintain his gear or assemble it properly. In one ridiculous case, a 23-year-old male drowned after making a shore entry into an extremely cold lake to salvage a snowmobile. He carried a line, which he had attached to the shore for the salvage procedure. To weight himself, he had tied a car crankshaft to his leg. There was no record of him being certified.

This 38-year-old rescue diver was known for not paying much attention to detail. In fact, he had had two previous out-of-air emergency ascents. On this fatal day, he entered the water without a buddy to make a wreck dive to 60 feet on Nitrox. When he didn’t return after an hour, other divers searched for him, recovering his body four hours later. As it turned out, he had failed to turn on any of his three tanks and his BC inflator hose was unattached. He tried to remove his weight belt, but he had tied it under his BC. He drowned at depth.

This 23-year-old female, with limited diving experience, made two dives to 10 feet from the shore with a buddy. She could not connect her BC power inflator because the coupling on the hose didn’t match the coupling on her BC; she carried weights in her BC pockets. During her first dive she had significant buoyancy problems. On the second dive she panicked during the descent, dropping her regulator. She refused help from her buddy’s octopus and drowned.

A 21-year-old male with fewer than 20 lifetime dives dropped to 60 feet with his buddy. Eight minutes into the dive he had problems with his weight belt and couldn’t maintain buoyancy. His buddy tried to help, but they became separated and his buddy ran out of air searching for him. His body was never recovered.

This 27-year-old male was spea rfishing at 40 feet around an oil rig. His buddy noticed he had leaks from both his buoyancy compensator and pony bottle, and had difficulty controlling his buoyancy at depth. At 60 feet he tried to fix his leaky BC, but became separated from his buddy and disappeared. Several divers in his group searched as deep as 200 feet, but he was never seen again.

Many accidents seem downright unexplainable and surely preventable. This 56-year- old male with 50 lifetime dives went diving in a quarry, without a buddy, dropping to only 29 feet for 15 minutes. After exiting the water to cool off, he reentered the water, failing to turn on his air. Fifteen minutes later he was found drowned on the bottom.

Shallow Water Embolisms

In nearly all deaths, a diver panics then makes a fatal error. The error is frequently a rapid ascent with inadequate exhalation, resulting in a serious embolism. To avoid an embolism, divers must remember they are not related to depth — they can happen in the shallowest of water.

This 54-year-old female had made 30 lifetime dives. She and her husband descended down the anchor line to 20 feet, where they stopped and she returned to the surface because she had difficulty clearing her ears. They descended again. While her husband continued down the line, she stopped again at 20 feet, then returned to the surface. She called for assistance, then she became disoriented and quickly lost consciousness. Resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful — she had suffered a fatal embolism.

This 56-year-old student in a certification course was among six divers being checked out at 20 feet in a quarry. During her second dive she lost consciousness on ascent and died of an embolism 20 hours later. A 38- year-old fellow with less than five lifetime dives, dropped to 30 feet, then for some reason surfaced rapi dly. He struggled briefly on the surface, then lost consciousness. Resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

This 18-year-old had pool training only, yet went diving with two dive buddies. He was anxious and having difficulty controlling his buoyancy, when on the bottom at 27 feet, he became separated from the others. He was later found floating on the surface unconscious, having embolized, then drowned .

Gator Dodging

Finally, this death recalls an incident that happened in Florida in late June. This 50-year-old male certified diver was making his fourth dive of the day in a freshwater pond. He and his dive buddy took turns surfacing to keep an eye out for alligators. At one point, the decedent did not rejoin his dive buddy as expected and he was found unconscious on the bottom. Resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

One may wonder why divers would dive where they must watch out for alligators, especially when these guys figured it required constant ascent, descent and separation from one another. But, then again, divers, snorkelers and swimmers in Florida’s freshwater constantly face the threat. In June, a 10-foot, 350-pound gator latched onto a woman swimming in five feet of water in Lake Como and pulled her underw ater. Her husband grabbed her and kicked the gator until it let go, but not until it nearly severed her foot. Florida game officials said that someone had been feeding the alligator regu lar y, which causes an alligator to lose its fear of people and expect something to eat when a human is near. Is there an analogy here with shark feeding?

—Ben Davison

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