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November 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 33, No. 11   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sinister Circumstances Surround this Diverís Death

from the November, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

New Zealand authorities want to know why a dive boat captain waited to call emergency services an hour after a diver went missing and made only one perfunctory dive to try to find her. They'll probably never find out.

The body of Thai diver Bua-Ngoen Thongsi was recovered by police divers three days after she disappeared on a dive off Motunau Beach, near Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island, back in February 2015. The inquest, which started in June, has found that evidence from the witnesses is unreliable. (The names of those involved in Thongsi's death have been suppressed in case criminal proceedings were started.)

The captain and two other men were aboard the boat with Thongsi, 37, diving for crayfish. David Boldt, the legal counsel assisting the coroner, suggested to the police that the men were attempting to cover up what happened when Thongsi went underwater and subsequently lied to investigators about how she had died.

The boat skipper alleged that Thongsi had trouble with her regulator, but after he pushed the purge button a few times, "it seemed to fix itself." He said that after she entered the water, another diver held on to Thongsi while she floated to the back of the boat. The skipper then went back to the wheel. The diver holding Thongsi said she began sinking when he let go of her. She had a blank look on her face, no sign of life, and did not appear to be breathing, so he immediately alerted the skipper. The third man said he believed "something might have happened while she was with the skipper and the other diver, but he had not seen it."

During the inquest, Boldt asked that man if he thought Thongsi might already have been dead when she was floated to the back of the boat. He replied that he had not been aware anything was wrong until he saw the other two "clambering around and saying something had happened." He then admitted there was an attempt to cover up what had happened, and that elements of his story, which he had originally told the police, had also changed during the inquest. He said once it was clear something was wrong, the skipper spun the boat around so fast to go back to the buoy, it knocked him over and he did not see the skipper try to rescue Thongsi.

The boat captain said he turned the boat back to the buoyed descent line after "a sixth sense told him something was wrong." However, it was not until after Thongsi submerged and he noticed there were no exhaled bubbles that he realized she wasn't breathing. He then entered the water but spent only 30 seconds searching for Thongsi. When grilled during the inquest, he alleged the water had been too murky, and he thought there was little point in looking for her after she had been underwater for more than four minutes.

An earlier inquest with testimony from the Police National Dive Squad found Thongsi had a full tank of air when she was found on the seafloor. Her gear functioned perfectly on a reconstruction dive, and there was nothing faulty in her medical history that could explain what happened.

During the inquest, Boldt told the divers and the boat captain, "There are a lot of red flags about this incident, and there were concerns that ... there was an attempt to cover something up."

It's up to New Zealand's Crown Prosecution Service whether they bring a criminal case and, based on the coroner's findings, there seems to be insufficient evidence to do so. If there was indeed a cover-up, it looks like these three divers got away with it.

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