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August 2002 Vol. 17, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die: Part I

with a little care, they would still diving

from the August, 2002 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Divers die for a variety of reasons, and each year we provide specific cases taken from DAN to illustrate the causes of their fatal dives. In too many cases, divers make bad judgments. Had they made other choices, they might be alive today. In analyzing DAN’s 2002 reports, we were struck by how many divers made seemily foolish mistakes that led to their deaths. In this first installment, we bring you several examples, knowing that we can learn from the mistakes of others, no matter how tragic.

Too often, I have seen divers rush to enter the water, and in their haste make mistakes that, at worst, are embarrassing and get a few laughs from their fellow divers. I once saw a diver jump in with his sunglasses on, his mask still on the deck. We’ve all seen divers forget their fins or their weight belts. But worse mistakes can be made. In one fatality, an experienced fifty-three-year-old male diver began his descent without his regulator in his mouth, but he kicked back up when he discovered his oversight. He descended again, but this time with the regulator from his pony bottle in his mouth. Divers in the water tried to get his attention, but he kept descending and ignored them. After ten minutes at fifty feet, he found it difficult to breathe and panicked. He ascended rapidly and became unconscious after reaching the surface. The resulting embolism was so severe that he couldn’t be resuscitated. His primary tank was full, and he had also failed to turn on his computer, which would have given him some notice of his rate of ascent.

And, what about buddy checks, making sure all gear is ready for a dive? A forty-one-year-old male divemaster was helping with an open-water class when he became separated from the other divers at a depth of seventy feet. His body was recovered two hours later at 117 feet, and a subsequent evaluation noted that he had barely cracked the tank valve. When the valve was opened, the air gauge popped up and showed plenty of air.

As divers become more experienced, they develop new skills as they being to experience currents, dive in bad weather, go deeper, and stray farther from the boat. This incremental approach is the best way to develop one’s ability. But some divers ignore gradual learning and tackle situations for which they are simply not prepared. One twenty-seven-year-old male diver had only an introductory cave diving certification, but he and his buddy lied about their experience to gain access to a deep cave system. The two used scooters to explore the caves, and along the way they created a mass silt out and could no longer see each other. One diver made it out. The body of the other was recovered several hours later, more than 2,000 feet from the cave’s entrance.

Caves kill the inexperienced. In one case a forty-two-year-old openwater certified male diver had no formal cave diving training, but he entered a freshwater cave alone and descended to 102 feet without a safety rope. When his body was recovered the next day, his tank was empty. He had drowned. That he was morbidly obese, smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, and complained of occasional chest pain probably didn’t help keep him alive.

In another case of going beyond one’s capacity, a twenty-seven-yearold uncertified diver with only four dives under his belt went night diving in low visibility water in an industrial lock system and retention pond to search for what he thought would be a “world-record catfish.” Both he and his buddy carried spearguns, and they had tied themselves together. At sixty feet, they swam into a flooded cement tunnel. After one diver indicated that he was low on air, they became separated. His buddy managed to find a vent and get to the surface, where he called for help. It was not until the next day that a crane could pull the grate off the vent and recover the dead diver.

During a dive, a forty-nine-yearold experienced male noted a tear in his dry suit and signaled his buddy he was going to ascend. At fifteen feet, they became separated and the buddy surfaced, but the first diver didn’t. The diver drowned, and when his body was recovered ninety minutes later, besides the tear in his dry suit, there was no connection for inflation of either the dry suit or the buoyancy compensation device.

Back in the 1960s, when not much in the way of equipment was commercially available, some people fashioned their own diving gear. As you can imagine, juryrigged gear led to a few deaths. Oddly, in the year 2000, two people died using their homemade equipment. One fellow drowned in a swimming pool in his apartment complex. In the other case, a fifty-two-year-old male experienced diver tried out a rebreather that he had made from a kit. He had experienced technical difficulties with this rig a few weeks earlier, thought he had corrected them, and left his home again to try it out. When he did not return by evening, a search was conducted and he was found in sixty feet of water, drowned.

Spearfishing carries risks, but the events that lead to one death are macabre. A sixteen-year-old certified male diver was making his second dive of the day on an oil rig fifty miles offshore with his mother and another diver. Both dives went past 200 feet, and the youth relied on his mother’s computer for these dives. After shooting an extremely large fish, he attached it to a stringer on his BC. But the fish, still alive, attacked him. The diver struggled with the fish, but it bit his face and neck. By the time his mother could help him, he was unconscious. She brought him to the surface, where he died. As it turned out, his regulator was marginal for deep dives. His mother’s computer had maxed out for depth and bottom time earlier in the dive.

He and his buddy lied about their experience
to gain access to a deep cave system.

Of course, we all know how alcohol or drugs affect judgment. We’re not talking about a beer or glass of wine at a meal. We’re talking about people who get loaded and go diving. Many of these don’t return.

A 45-year-old male experienced diver drank and used recreational drugs the night before his dive and drank the morning of the dive. Entering the water with a buddy, he made a short dive to forty feet. His buddy left, but he continued to cruise the bottom. Some time later they found an empty tank and equipment, but never the diver, who had made the dive without a BC.

A thirty-three-year-old male, an experienced, certified diver, went alone to gather lobsters. He used a tank he had filled a year earlier and assembled his dive gear incorrectly. After five minutes at thirtyfive feet, he panicked, ascended rapidly, lost consciousness, and died of pulmonary barotrauma. He tested positive for cocaine and had an elevated blood alcohol level. Rather than wear his tank and BC to start the dive, he apparently carried the equipment down with him. He had mounted the tank upside down.

A forty-eight-year-old male who was uncertified made a shore entry without a dive buddy to only ten feet, but never surfaced. His body was found four hours later. A postmortem found that his blood alcohol level was more than three times the legal limit for driving.

In the next issue, we will cover more cases, hoping that the mistakes of others will help us become safer divers.

— Ben Davison

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