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September 2012    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 27, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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One Cavern Plus Panic Equals Four Deaths

from the September, 2012 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Having studied hundreds of diving deaths over the years, I always shudder when I read about unsuspecting sport divers heading into a cavern, stirring up silt, getting deeper into trouble, and finding no way out. Sadly, four divers died near Palinuro Italy on June 30, and here are the reports from CNN and the Telegraph:

A British diver who had been living in Rome is believed to have been the leader of a party of divers who lost their bearings after kicking up mud from the floor of the "Blood Grotto," a popular destination with amateur divers because of its red walls, caused by a bacterial growth. According to Italian investigators, the group missed the exit to the cave after becoming confused, and instead entered a nearby tunnel, which led to a chamber with a dead end.

Massimo Ruggiero, the Coast Guard commander in Palinuro, said, "The entrance to the cave is through a tunnel at a depth of 13 to 14 metres. The group should then have swum up to a higher tunnel and made their exit from the cave through that. Beneath this channel, there is another tunnel that leads to a dead end in a chamber with a sandy floor. All the victims were found there."

Marco Sebastiani, one of four other divers who survived the tragedy, said he realized something was wrong when he saw their guide showing signs of agitation, but at that point, it was too late. "We suddenly found ourselves in a blind tunnel. We couldn't see anything. At that point, it was panic. The agitation of the least experienced took hold. Mud and sand came up from the bottom of the cave, and visibility was gone. At a certain point, I managed to find my way. I took as many people as I could with me, and we swam towards the light, which grew bigger all the time. When I came up, I looked around to count us, and I realized that Susy, Andrea, Douglas and Panos weren't there.

Roberto Navarra, the diving school owner who provided the group's equipment, confirmed that four of the group had swum into the wrong tunnel. "It's an easy cave, but there is a dangerous tunnel that people never use. Four people swam into that channel." He said he had tried repeatedly to save the missing divers but "the visibility was terrible. You could see nothing." Navarra said the group was correctly equipped and carried torches.

Valter Ciociano, an expert diver from nearby Marina di Camerota, said many of the 35 underwater caves that draw divers to the area have muddy bottoms. "Often when you go in, the water is clear and you don't notice that your flippers are muddying the water behind you, creating what seems an impenetrable wall. On these occasions, it's panic that rules the day."

The underwater caves do sometimes contain small air pockets under the roof, but experts say they are no guarantee of safety. In many cases, the air would not be breathable because of the presence of poisonous hydrogen sulphide fumes.

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