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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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March 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 24, No. 3   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Why Divers Die: Part I

fatal errors, all preventable

from the March, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Since 1980, we have been reporting cases about diver fatalities, hoping that by describing the incidents, our readers will become more careful divers and avoid fatal accidents. This year, we are reporting on cases from the Diver Alert Network’s latest report, detailing dive fatalities in 2006 (we included names and additional details printed in news sources). In the cases that follow, divers made fatal errors, mainly in judgment. Each of these unfortunate deaths could have been prevented.

Many divers see diving like riding a bicycle: once you learn how to do it, you’ll never forget. That assumption, however, can be fatal. Stephen Radlein, 39, was an experienced diver with rescue and instructor certifications, but he had taken a 15-year break from diving. Then he went diving in Victoria, B.C., with a man and a woman he had met the day before. They planned a dive to 40 feet for 45 minutes but Radlein got separated from the other two at the 40-minute mark. They found him a few minutes later, floating face down and unconscious on the surface with a partially inflated BCD and an empty tank, and Radlein couldn’t be resuscitated. His dive computer showed that he had done a rapid ascent from 33 feet. He was also wearing 54 pounds of weight, although he told his two dive buddies prior to the dive that this was how much he typically used.

Cold Water Is Not Like the Caribbean

Many divers make the assumption that all bodies of water are the same, as did this 51-year-old fellow, who had many specialty certifications but only moderate experience and nearly all in tropical water. His first dive of the year was to be a night dive on a wreck in a freshwater lake. Visibility was poor, the water was cold and he forgot to bring a hood. Still, he and his buddy entered the water and went to 97 feet, but he was underwater only 14 minutes when his air was down to 1,000 psi. They went up to 60 feet but got separated, so the buddy went to the surface but couldn’t find the diver. His drowned body was recovered the next day with 20 pounds of weight in his BCD that would have been difficult to drop. His tank was empty and an evaluation of the regulator showed that it wasn’t working well, taking increased work to breathe through the second stage.

In another incident where a warm-water diver figured he could handle the cold, this 43-year-old male diver, certified for less than a year, was using a drysuit with which he had little experience to make a solo dive from a boat while others waited on the surface. After 10 minutes, the people on the boat noticed his bubbles had stopped. He drowned and his body was recovered the next day at 75 feet. He didn’t have the auto-inflator hose connected, and he wore a total of 37 pounds of weight, including ankle and pocket weights.

Medicated Divers Shouldn’t Have God Complexes

In many cases, divers with all sorts of physical maladies think diving is like a walk in the park, but the stress of diving can cause any number of problems. Dwight Blackwelder, 58, was an experienced diver with a history of seizures and blackouts during dives. He was also taking morphine for chronic shoulder pain and had a pacemaker implanted to control abnormal heart rhythms. Nevertheless, Blackwelder made solo dives to gather lobster five miles off of Fort Pierce, FL, while three friends stayed on the boat. On his second dive, Blackwelder descended to 50 feet but after an hour of bottom time, his friends noticed a lack of bubbles coming to the surface. One of them went down and found Blackwelder unconscious. Although toxicological studies found a high level of morphine in his blood, the medical examiner concluded that Blackwelder’s drowning was due to an irregular heart rate.

Another medicated diver, three months certified, was on the fourth day of a multi-day dive trip and making his first ever night dive. However, the 24-year-old had been taking several over-the-counter cold medications that day and ruptured an eardrum three weeks prior. After running low on air at 65 feet, the two surfaced but the diver lost his weight belt trying to help his buddy get untangled from kelp. Both of them descended to retrieve it and became separated. The diver was found the next day, drowned on the bottom near his lost weight belt. He had been carrying 32 pounds of weight, but 24 pounds were in various pockets of his BCD. He had also modified his fins, apparently making them less efficient for propulsion.

When Does Drinking or Drugs Ever Mix with Diving?

Jackie Smith, a 47-year-old dive instructor and technical diver, was drinking until 4:00 a.m., then experimented with modifications he made to his rebreather before doing a morning dive at a quarry in Lake Norman, NC. He and his buddy did a shore entry into very cold water with poor visibility. Smith had an equipment problem 15 minutes into the dive after reaching 105 ft. He and his buddy ascended rather quickly, then became separated at a safety stop at 80 feet. The dive buddy made two more stops and went to the surface. Other divers on the surface heard someone yell, then saw Smith floating unconscious on the surface; he couldn’t be resuscitated. Apparently, Smith knew his rebreather was malfunctioning and planned to use it in semi-closed-circuit mode to compensate, but an examination revealed it was out of specifications, with malfunctioning sensors and an improperly packed carbon dioxide scrubber. The diluent gas tank was also empty.

In this double death, toxicology tests found that both deceased divers tested positive for cocaine, which may have contributed to a number of errors. Robert Straus, 37, had a reputation as a reckless diver from people familiar with his diving habits. Having done no dives in the previous year, he made plans to go spearfishing with Cynthia Oquist, 35, off a boat near Boynton Beach, FL. A third person waited in the boat while the two entered the water. The current was very strong and shortly after the initial descent, Straus surfaced and waved for help. The two divers struggled on the surface and got entangled in the buoy line. Straus panicked and used Oquist’s alternate air source. Other people arrived at the scene tried to help the divers by pulling in the buoy line, but the line snapped. Both divers descended below the surface and their drowned bodies were recovered an hour later at 50 feet. Straus still had weights in place and was entangled in the line. Oquist had dropped her weights but also was entangled in the line, her mask on her forehead. Both divers’ tanks were nearly full, but Straus’ BCD wouldn’t hold air and his equipment proved to be in nearly unusable condition, while Oquist’s gear was also in poor repair.

Most Importantly, Check Your Gear

Perhaps the first rule in staying alive is having the proper gear, which is what one learns in a certification course. So you couldn’t expect Todd Hilkert, 36, who was not certified, to get it right for gathering lobster with a buddy near Islamorada, FL. On their second dive, they separated but continued to dive solo. The buddy surfaced but a search team recovered Hilkert’s drowned body in only 15 feet of water, his regulator mouthpiece out of his mouth. The tank and regulator were attached incorrectly, the purge button on the regulator stuck at times, the tank was empty and the BCD had a small leak.

You would expect a certified experienced diver to descend with a full tank of air, but George Sipp, 72, diving with buddies at Alligator Reef near Islamorada, FL, didn’t. After a wreck dive to 112 feet for 28 minutes, he used the same tank for a shallower second dive. Sipp’s buddies descended ahead of him. He was later found floating on the surface, a half-mile away, dead of drowning. His computer recorded a nine-minute dive to 29 feet. Sipp’s snorkel apparently was in his mouth, but his weight belt was off and his tank was empty.

And you would expect an experienced diver to shy away from foolish record-breaking feats, but then a 27-year-old diver might not be mature enough. This fellow was making a shore dive at night to set a personal depth record using a single tank of air. He had other divers staged at various depths to assist him, but visibility was poor. His buddy became separated from him and aborted the dive due to nitrogen narcosis. When another buddy experienced vertigo at 200 feet, the diver helped him up to 160 feet before turning to continue his descent. His body was recovered nine months later by a solo diver at 200 feet. His death was ruled a drowning due to nitrogen narcosis.

Sadly, too many divers make the simple mistake of not turning on their air. A 40-year-old experienced diver was with a group on the Salty V, three miles offshore in the Los Angeles Channel, and using a rebreather for wreck dives. He announced that he wanted to go off alone during the second dive so he could maximize his bottom time. He also said it was his habit to turn off the electronics on his rebreather between dives, and advised the other diver using a rebreather to do the same. The other divers returned to the boat and waited for the diver, but his body wasn’t found until the next day. The rebreather was in good working condition but he had failed to turn it on for the second dive and he wasn’t carrying a dive computer. His diluent bottle was empty, but a pony bottle had plenty of air left in it.

Janice Smith co-owned the dive shop Mainely Scuba in Wilton, ME, with her husband, though she had only moderate diving experience. Intending to enter Wilson Lake to join a large group, she was in a hurry and had someone else put her equipment together. She descended quickly and immediately had a problem with her air source. Her buddy tried to share her air and help Smith back to the surface but lost her grip on Smith, who sank back down, probably with water already in her lungs. Two other divers brought her to the surface for resuscitation efforts. She spent five days in the hospital before she died of complications of near drowning, which included anoxic brain injury and bronchopneumonia. An examination of her gear showed that the tank valve was closed and the power inflator hose to the BCD was disconnected. The person who assembled the gear said all was in order and the air was turned on when the diver entered the water, but it’s unclear when the air was turned off - - or if it was ever turned on.

Sadly, all of these deaths could have been prevented. In many, the errors were extreme. In the next issue or two we’ll cover more preventable deaths, from problems as simple as overweighting to failing to inflate a BCD on the surface. Let us learn from others’ mistakes, however tragic they may be.

- - Ben Davison

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