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February 2015    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 30, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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The Aftermath of a Fatal Dive Accident

John Bantin tries to save a life but still gets attacked in court

from the February, 2015 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

When someone dies in a diving accident, the aftermath can even embroil those who were only doing their best to help. Although I wrote about this dive death, which happened 10 years ago, in my book, Amazing Dive Stories, I have never publicly disclosed the repercussions regarding the way the dead diver's employer -- and his dependents -- sought someone to blame for his death. Because I had been involved in his failed rescue, it seemed I was fair game, as were others. It still rankles that in trying to do my best, I got caught up in the legal repercussions.

David Graves died during a simple leisure dive in the Bahamas. He was on a press trip with other British journalists to write a travel piece featuring scuba diving. Originally, the Bahamas tourist office had planned for them to dive the famous Blue Holes, but their host, Jeff Birch, owner of the Small Hope Bay Lodge on Andros Island, decided none of the journalists had the proficiency to handle those overhead environments, so he took them on a check-out dive. Graves was seen to run low on air and bolt toward the surface before being successfully intercepted by an attentive dive guide. That afternoon, they all went to watch a shark feed underwater.

I had attached myself to them when I discovered that my flight to Bimini, where I had intended to go, was over-booked. The press trip to Andros had been arranged by DIVER, for which I was its Technical Editor. During this second dive, there were 10 people in the water. I witnessed Graves swimming off from the group alone, while the two dive guides looking after the journalists were distracted -- one diver appeared to be losing her weight belt, with the possibility of a sudden and uncontrolled ascent, and needed the two guides to sort it out. Graves made a series of errors, probably due to overconfidence combined with a lack of motor skills he would have attained if he had gained more experience as a diver. He should not have gone off alone; he never made it back to the boat. Sadly, he paid for these mistakes with his life.

When his lifeless body was recovered, it fell to me and one of the dive guides to attempt to resuscitate him while the other drove the boat back to land. Some of the divers surprised me by complaining that this had ruined their vacation. However, our skilled yet ineffective efforts during the journey to the U.S. naval base on Andros Island failed, and medics pronounced him dead.

At times, the procedure bordered
on farce, when the lawyer asked
questions like, "What did you and
the dive shop owner talk about
while you were underwater?"

I decided the right thing to do was return to the U.K. immediately to tell his family what had happened. I went to a London suburb where his wife and two young sons lived, and went through the painful procedure of explaining why their beloved husband and father would not be returning home. Soon, reports of the incident appeared in the British newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph, for which Graves had worked. Their reports did not ring true to me. Whether some of the journalists were suffering guilt for staying on and completing "their vacation," I cannot say, but they seemed to be looking for someone to blame for the death of their colleague. I was surprised at a call I got from a senior executive at the Daily Telegraph, who told me the dive shop was going to be punished.

In my mind, I went over that day's awful events. I had become bored during that crucial second dive and had returned to wait horizontally at 20 feet, watching the group below me gathered together by the two guides and led up the anchor line. I was surprised to see Graves swim off purposefully and alone. I intended to caution him against that sort of action when he got back in the boat. Sadly, I never got that chance.

My involvement did mean I was an important material witness, and I returned to the Bahamas to be a defense witness for the two dive guides and the dive shop. Some of the other journalists also attended the trial but each seemed to be working to an agenda rather than the true events I had seen unfold. The Daily Telegraph sent one of its senior reporters, a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking man -- he seemed giddy that the dive guides and the dive shop owner were heading towards a manslaughter charge.

The Daily Telegraph hired a local trial lawyer who would seek to discredit the evidence of someone who is perceived to be a hostile witness. Appearing in the witness box can be a daunting prospect, but if you are sure of the truth, it is easy to stick by it, despite attempts of lawyers to discredit you. Those with agendas gave testimony that was soon discounted. I withstood six hours of intense cross-examination, but the lawyer ostensibly representing the widow had not bothered to do his homework and knew little about diving. At times, the procedure bordered on farce when he asked questions like, "What did you and Mr. Birch (the dive shop owner) talk about while you were underwater during the first dive?"

Of course, under court rules, one may only answer the question and not offer any extra information. My answer was that we didn't talk.

"How long were you and Mr. Birch under water together during that first dive?"

"About 45 minutes."

"And you are trying to tell the court that you were together for 45 minutes and said nothing to each other?"

"Yes."

The questioning would go on, trying to make me look as if I had something to hide. Eventually, the lawyer made the error of asking me why we did not speak to each other during the dive.

"You cannot talk under water," I said.

It would have been farcical if it had not been for the obvious anguish of Graves' widow. Why the Daily Telegraph chose to put her through this was a mystery. Nobody wants to hear that a loved one lost his life through a simple, stupid mistake.

I had the nagging fear that the lawyers' wigs and gowns (the Bahamas uses a British-style court), rather than the evidence, might impress the coroner. I had taken the precaution of wearing a computer on my wrist identical to the one Graves wore, and frequently added to my answers that the information was all on the computer that Graves wore "identical to this one." Eventually the coroner cottoned on and asked if Graves had been wearing a diving computer. The other side begrudgingly admitted he was. When the coroner asked for a print-out from it, they huddled before declaring it would take several months. I found this strange, because I had gone though the dive profile on Graves' computer while his lifeless body was still wearing it. I'd examined the pictures taken on his digital camera that were complete with time code. I'd done all this within a few minutes of getting to the naval base on that terrible day. I'd also taken the precaution of getting the downloaded data from the fateful dive printed out for myself, but I could hardly admit that I had it in my pocket right there while in the witness box, because I was not sure how legal it was to be in my possession. Of course, nobody had the wit to ask me, although I had informed the lawyer representing Small Hope Bay Lodge and its dive guides that I had it. He seemed to think it was not necessary.

There was something else. The Daily Telegraph had hired an expert witness who had been to the site, examined the evidence and concluded that Graves had gone off alone, run out of air and shot to the surface but had been unable to stay there because he neither added air by mouth to his BC nor dropped his weight belt. What the people at the Daily Telegraph failed to appreciate is that the professional diving world is very small. I knew their expert had told them this because by coincidence I shared an office desk with him and couldn't help listening to the telephone conversations. Evidently it wasn't what they wanted to hear, and his services were terminated.

How could a fit 50-year-old man die while underwater? Despite direction from the coroner, the Bahamian jurors knew the answer -- he drowned. The case made front-page stories in the Daily Telegraph and other U.K. newspapers. A few days later, I got a phone call from a journalist at Private Eye, a British satirical magazine. She asked me if I would withdraw the evidence I had given in court. I told her I was under oath at the time and took that seriously. "In which case I am going to destroy you," she announced.

What a shame these journalists never bothered to do their homework, nor let the truth get in the way of a good story. This is part of what Private Eye, printed in its September 19, 2003 issue, in which it reported the event and also made attacks on PADI. The article was titled "PADI Whacked." The reporter wrote, "The Eye also spoke to John Bantin, Technical Editor of DIVER, whose sister organization, The Dive Show, was one of the organizers of the press trip. Bantin was on the trip taking photos for The Dive Show, and he had told the coroner he had suggested to Birch that the divers should be escorted as a group and not be in buddy pairs because he believed they were not experienced enough to help each other. He said he had seen David Graves rush to the surface on the first morning dive, leaving his buddy behind. Asked whether, in the light of the coroner's findings and the apparent failure of the group dive, Bantin now believed the buddy training system should have been reinforced rather than abandoned, he was unrepentant . . ."

This probably precipitated a barrage of letters from PADI diving instructors, because Private Eye printed this example from a Mark Papp in the following issue. It adequately sums up the perspective from someone informed about diving: "David Graves' death was a very sad event . . . Your article, however, misses a few points. Graves wasn't forced into going on the press junket. He wasn't forced to dive. He wasn't forced to ignore his training and stray from the group. He wasn't forced to ignore his training by ignoring his air cylinder's contents gauge. Despite the apparent lack of attention from the divemasters, there has to be a concept of personal responsibility somewhere down the line. Graves was a qualified diver. His training warned him of the dangers of scuba diving, so why didn't he apply common sense, obey his training and, in a hostile alien environment with only a limited duration life support apparatus, check his air frequently?

"That he had a close call on his first dive and yet apparently failed to check his limited supply of air on the second beggars belief. Why do you, and some divers, assume that no matter what happens under water, somebody else will bail you out? You seem . . . to imply that the 'gross negligence manslaughter' verdict offered might have been more appropriate, despite your history of highlighting coroners pressuring jurors to return verdicts they are unhappy with. Also, have you lost your attitude towards personal responsibility?

"I'm deeply sorry for Graves' family's loss, but also want to stem the rapidly increasing flow of liability litigation, which seems based on the inability of anybody to accept personal risk, even when voluntarily in obviously hazardous situations."

I think Papp's letter sums it up well.

John Bantin is the former technical editor of DIVER magazine in the United Kingdom. For 20 years, he used and reviewed virtually every piece of equipment available in the U.K. and the U.S., and made around 300 dives per year for that purpose. He is also a professional underwater photographer, and most recently the author of Amazing Diving Stories, available at www.undercurrent.org

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