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May 2008    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 23, No. 5   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die: Part III

tragically dumb mistakes that turned into fatal errors

from the May, 2008 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

This is Undercurrent’s third report on diving deaths compiled by the Diver’s Alert Network (DAN). Our first two reports focused on fatalities caused by panic and entrapment, and fatal problems that happened on the water’s surface either before or after the dive. Now we’ll address bad, irrational, even dumb mistakes dead divers made, from overweighting and diving without enough air to jumping in the water with poorly assembled or improper gear. Some of the deaths that DAN recorded from 2005 will leave many of you, as they did us, scratching your head and asking, “What were they thinking?”

Here’s a good example of multiple mistakes. A 30-year-old man with minimal diving experience made a solo dive from a boat down to 18 feet to attach a chain to a buoy. He wasn’t wearing fins, his equipment did not meet inspection standards and in poor repair, and BCD’s power inflator was not connected. When he didn’t come up at an expected time, someone in the boat jumped in to find him but couldn’t. A rescue diver pulled him from the bottom, where he had drowned.

Watch Your Weight

A common problem among divers is determining the right amount of weight to wear. If you change from freshwater to saltwater, add or subtract rubber, lose or gain weight, your weighting requirement changes. A 40-year-old man making his firstever ocean dive using an underwater scooter didn’t determine what he needed for neutral buoyancy to fin around on his own. He had a buoyancy problem and returned to the boat with his buddy to get more weights. After beginning a second dive with the scooters, he still felt too buoyant, and the two divers headed back to the boat again for more weights. But this time he may have become overweighted, because when swimming ahead of his buddy, the man called out for help before dropping below the surface and drowning.

When in trouble on the surface, like choppy waters hitting you head on, inflate your BC. If still floundering, drop your weights. Many dead divers might have lived had they maintained their buoyancy on the surface. A 44-year-old technical diver was making a wreck dive in rough seas with three buddies. He went off on his own, ran low on air and made a rapid ascent. He surfaced ahead of his buddies into choppy waves and grabbed onto a buoy but did not drop his weights. The effort of holding on tired him out and he let go, drifting away from the boat and disappearing after struggling on the surface. His body was found two hours later, and his death was ruled a drowning due to an air embolism from his rapid ascent.

This 52-year-old female with only 10 lifetime dives set the stage for her death by putting 30 pounds in her weight belt. When her divemaster told her to drop some weight, she removed six pounds but then put them in her BC jacket pocket. When she surfaced from the dive, she missed the tag line, couldn’t inflate her BC because she had exhausted her air supply, and did not drop her weights. She sank below the surface and drowned. Her body was recovered two hours later at 60 feet with all 30 pounds of weight still in place.

A 49-year-old certified male diver and a member of the sheriff’s local dive team made a solo dive from a boat to determine how to salvage a sunken boat from the bottom while a friend waited topside. He was using a drysuit and was overweighted. He surfaced after 30 minutes at 50 feet, tried to say something to his friend, but lost consciousness and sank. A gear examination revealed that his tank was empty. The medical examiner ruled a heart attack, but DAN says his dive profile and empty tank made an embolism likely.

Got Air?

Plenty of cases involve experienced divers who jump in the water with too little air, stay too long underwater, or wear their breathing gear improperly. Another danger is that divers running out of air can cause problems for their buddies, who try to assist but are instead caught in a fatal trap. A 49-year-old man was diving with a buddy to 90 feet to look at the Mackenzie, a Canadian Navy wreck off the coast of Gooch Island in British Columbia. When his buddy ran out of air, he offered to share air but the buddy, in a panic, pulled the hose off the man’s regulator. The two rushed to the surface. The man lost consciousness on the surface and died of an air embolism while the buddy was treated for severe injuries but survived.

A 62-year-old male with 26 dives was diving with a buddy from a liveaboard and exhausted his air supply. He and his buddy shared air during the ascent but they came up too fast, and the man lost consciousness on the way up. His death was listed as a heart attack on the report but DAN says that given the circumstances, it was more likely due to an air embolism.

This 34-year-old experienced male diver didn’t have a cave diving certification but made a shore dive with three buddies into a complex cave system. While all three had spare gas bottles, he left his at the safety stop. When he ran out of air at 184 feet, one buddy gave him a spare, but he still didn’t make it back to the safety stop. His body was recovered later that day, still in a cave.

Jason Allen Waight, a 29-year-old diver with fewer than 25 dives, made a solo shore dive in poor visibility at Lake Travis in Austin, Texas. A diver found him unconscious on the surface. A check of his gear found that Waight had exhausted his air, and his tank was mounted backward. His dive computer showed that he had descended to 163 feet for a bottom time of 25 minutes, then made an extremely rapid ascent, omitting at least four minutes of needed decompression time.

Zak Jones, a 30-year-old dive instructor with multiple specialty certifications, worked for Fort Lauderdale’s Pro Diver when he went spearfishing with six co-workers off the dive shop’s boat Pro Diver II. Jones used a rebreather gig and separated from his buddy at 190 feet to explore a reef. The next time his buddy saw Jones, he was at 160 feet, struggling as if entangled in his air lines, then falling unconscious. Despite CPR, Jones died on the boat. His primary gas source had been exhausted, and his bailout bottle was not configured in a usable way, plus there was no regulator attached to it. His death was ruled a drowning due to lack of air.

Bad Buddies

You can’t control the actions of your dive buddy, but you don’t have to follow him down a bad path. Choosing whom to dive with is often the most important decision you’ll make. In some DAN cases, the diver who helped the buddy in trouble was the one who ended up dead. A 42-year-old female diver, certified for seven years, and her buddy jumped from their boat into water with strong current and poor visibility. Her buddy immediately had mask, fin and BCD problems. She tried to help but he struggled, losing a fin. As she went after the fin, she struggled in the current and drifted away, her regulator dropping from her mouth. Her body was recovered 10 days later, miles from the boat, and her death was ruled a drowning.

Even divemasters and dive instructors can make big mistakes, but they shouldn’t be making reckless ones while with students. Steven Donathan, a 49-year-old dive instructor from San Diego, was diving off Mission Beach with a large group when he took his advanced open-water student, Joseph Danglemaier, 46, down to the Yukon, a Canadian warship wreck lying at 105 feet. Donathan had earlier told friends that he was going to do a “wreck interior problem exercise at 80 feet” that would have Danglemaier’s air turned off and his mask dislodged. Despite poor visibility, they entered a restricted area of the wreck by opening a hatch that had been welded shut. The two entered the confined space without a line. At 25 minutes into their dive, Donathan went through a tight passageway that Danglemaier could not fit through. He tried to signal to Donathan that he couldn’t go any farther, but Donathan continued on. Danglemaier searched briefly for Donathan, then exited the ship, waited outside for 15 minutes and ascended to the surface. Donathan was recovered two days later entangled in pipes in the ship’s boiler room, off limits to divers. All of the several tanks he had with him were empty, and he had run out of air 74 minutes into the dive. Investigators believe Donathan became disoriented after his movements inside the silt-filled room caused zero-visibility conditions.

Don’t Drink and Dive

While Undercurrent readers certainly know not to impair their diving judgment with booze, DAN reports fatalities of drunk divers every year. A 45-year-old man with unknown diving experience made a solo dive from a boat and was found unconscious at 68 feet by other divers. He had attempted to ditch his gear but didn’t drop his weights. It didn’t help that he had been drinking before diving. Toxicology revealed a blood ethanol concentration of 122 milligrams per liter; 80 millligrams can result in a DUI charge.

This 54-year-old man had “a couple of drinks” with his buddy, then entered the water alone from the boat, while his buddy changed his mind. After 30 minutes, he returned to the boat in distress, tried to get back into the boat on his own but fell back in the water. His buddy, dressed in regular clothes, jumped into the water to save him but failed. Rescue divers eventually brought the drowned man to shore. He had a blood ethanol concentration of 138 milligrams per liter, and the examiner called him “acutely intoxicated.”

On a Positive Note

Not all potentially fatal dives end up badly. Last December, British diver Abi March, a 27-year-old with 60 dives, was taken for dead while diving with a group in a North Wales quarry. She panicked after descending rapidly to 60 feet and held onto a wall to stop from dropping farther. Her buddy tried to bring her back to the surface but lost his grip, and March fell to 90 feet, unconscious with her regulator out of her mouth. A technical diver ascending from a deep dive found her and, assuming that March was dead, removed her weight belt and inflated her BCD to send her body to the surface. Other divers saw her body and carried out CPR, but after eight minutes, March was still totally white, with blue lips and no heartbeat. They were about to give up when she started to breathe again and regained consciousness. She was treated for secondary drowning and made a full recovery.

- - Ben Davison

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