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February 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 34, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die: Part I

panic attacks and entanglement are two killers

from the February, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Every year, Undercurrent reports on diving fatalities compiled by the Diver’s Alert Network (DAN) in an ongoing effort to draw lifesaving lessons from these tragedies. In the 167 dive-related deaths recorded in 2005, 89 of them were U.S. and Canadian divers (79 male, 10 female). That has basically held steady for the past four years, however many of these deceased divers would still be alive if they had better judgment and common sense.

Panic Attacks

Most divers are calm and collected, but there can often be a kernel of fear lurking inside that can explode if the situation takes a turn. That’s known as panic – going from cucumber-cool to out of control. Though new divers are most apt to panic, experienced divers are also at risk of doing the same should a dive go awry.

A study by Dr. William Morgan, director of the Sport Psychology Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, found that more than half of advanced divers have experienced panic or near-panic while diving. What separates them from those who die from it is the ability to let rationality overcome emotion. Many DAN reports list divers who suddenly bolted for the surface, refused alternative air sources and rescue attempts, and were found dead with functioning equipment, enough air in their tanks and weight belts still in place. A panic attack can make one pass out or, for those with weak tickers, have a heart attack.

Hyperventilation is an early warning sign of panic. Rapid, shallow breathing can cause hypoxia and a buildup of carbon dioxide. The result: you act irrationally, breathe faster, expel your regulator or bolt for the surface. Lemley Lawton Parker, a 27-year-old from Dade City, Florida, with unknown diving experience, was making repetitive bounce dives to 15 feet with a buddy in Florida’s Withlacoochee River, searching for fossils. They used ankle weights for the dives. During one of the bounces, Parker separated from his buddy and ascended in a panic. He broke to the surface, shouting that he needed help. A nearby boater threw him an anchor line but he didn’t grab it and sank back below the surface. He was pulled unconscious from the water by his buddy. Parker’s tank still contained 1,000 psi and an autopsy ruled his death as a drowning secondary to an air embolism.

We printed “The Irrational Fear of Flashing Computers” in our July 2007 issue about divers flying to the surface as soon as their dive computers go into decompression mode or start flashing. Unfortunately, the result can be fatal, as it was for an experienced 47-year-old male diver with multiple certifications. He and a buddy made a wreck dive to 105 feet for 26 minutes. There were no problems until they ascended and the man’s mask flooded at 55 feet. The two divers then went up to the safety stop, where the man’s computer ascent violation rang. He panicked and rapidly headed for the surface. On the surface, his buddy offered him air, but he lost consciousness and couldn’t be resuscitated.

Some divers are more susceptible to panic than others because they have higher anxiety levels. A 2002 study by dive panic researcher and psychologist David Colvard, M.D., found that 45 percent of men and 57 percent of women with a history of panic attacks reported panicking on one or more dives, compared to 19 percent of men and 33 percent of women who had never panicked before. They are more likely to panic when faced with a flooded mask, poor visibility or buddy separation. Even experienced divers with hundreds of dives experience panic for no apparent reason, most likely because they lose sight of familiar objects, become disoriented and experience sensory deprivation.

Still, that shouldn’t mean losing common sense and assessing your abilities and whereabouts in a situation, especially when close to shore. A 51-year-old diver who had just been certified was reported to be a poor swimmer and prone to panic. He and his wife were doing a shore dive in Rockland, Maine, but after going 20 yards, they decided to abort it because of poor visibility and swim the length of the pier on the return. Soon after starting, the couple separated. The man was found 90 minutes later, unconscious at a depth of 12 feet with weight belt still in place but an uninflated BCD.

Buoyancy problems and low air are major causes of panic, leading divers to refuse assistance that could save their lives. A recently certified 57-year-old diver taking an advanced openwater course was having persistent buoyancy problems during a dive of the Tiller wreck in Lake Ontario. When he looked at his tank and saw it was running low on air, he panicked. His instructor tried to share air but he wouldn’t take it. He lost consciousness and couldn’t be resuscitated at the surface.

Althea Rhooms, 43, from Ajax, Ontario, was doing a requalification class in a local lake when she panicked during buoyancy control drills and started flailing at 45 feet. Her buddy signaled to surface but couldn’t grab hold of Rhooms. The instructor finally took notice and took her up but by then Rhooms had lost consciousness and resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

Keeping calm is key underwater and it’s easier to do so by breathing slowly and deeply from the diaphragm. One should start doing this well before submerging. Making sure equipment is configured for maximum comfort and efficiency, plus a buddy’s once-over of it, will increase confidence. In cold water, getting used to the water before descending by pausing on the surface to acclimate, even snorkeling briefly, is helpful. When underwater in poor conditions like bad visibility, using whatever orientation aids are on hand, like your instruments and your stream of bubbles, can be reassuring.

Tangled Up in the Blue

Panic impedes the ability to solve problems and get to safety when your equipment malfunctions or you’re tangled in a line. Dr. Morgan believes panic could also be fueled by heavy physical activity such as trying to break free from entanglement. A thin line of rope can be a diver’s undoing, especially when the person is ill-prepared.

Daniel Fisch, a 54-year-old from Carlsbad, California, with three years of diving experience, had made two dives with a buddy near kelp beds off of Point Loma, then entered the water for a third dive alone to retrieve some crab pots. Unfortunately, Fisch began the dive with minimal air in his tank, either forgetting or assuming he wouldn’t be down that long. When rescue divers recovered his body four hours later, he was entangled in the pot lines in a manner that prevented him from ditching his weights.

A 49-year-old experienced male diver was collecting lobsters with two other divers on a night dive. When he ran low on air, he left the group to head back to shore. He was later found unconscious and entangled in kelp, with weights that could not be ditched. He was taken to a hyperbaric chamber but pronounced dead on arrival.

A very experienced 28-year-old diver was making a series of solo dives in a river to retrieve an anchor, alone and with no one topside. His dive computer showed his first dive had been short and shallow, and then he had gone in for a second dive. He was found two days later, drowned, entangled in rope and with all of his equipment on. According to the dive computer, he had used little or no air during the second dive, most likely because he had struggled with the rope above water before he drowned.

Bruce J. Switzer from West Yarmouth, Massachusetts, had only had his certification card for six weeks when he made a solo dive from Town Neck Beach in Cape Cod Bay to look for lobsters. The beach was notorious for currents and Switzer, 42, didn’t use a BCD. Rescuers, who had to battle a strong, easterly current, found Switzer entangled in lines attached to lobster pots. It’s unclear whether he dropped his weights but his tank still held 2,000 psi.

What could have prevented these four entanglement deaths? Knives or scissors, which divers are too often without. They’re definitely a requirement when diving near kelp beds or lobster pots, but even in tropical conditions they are necessary because of the amount of monofilament fishing line floating around that can entangle a tank. It was once customary to strap a knife to the calf like James Bond in Thunderball, but now dive knives and scissors are small enough to fit into a BCD pocket.

In all these situations, keeping calm and relaxed is essential as is retaining good judgment. Going through the “Stop, Breathe, Think and Act” process moderates reaction when something unexpected happens. Fixing small problems before they explode into major ones goes a long way to fending off panic. It’s a combination of unexpected factors, not just one, that can send a diver over the edge.

- - Ben Davison

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