Through the gloomy water, the remnants of rotting timbers and rusting metal took shape before Aaron's eyes. He felt certain the wreck had been in the mouth of the river for a hundred years--maybe even longer. Aaron battled the racing current to stay in place, and his excitement grew as he lifted away more silt, mud and sand, which, despite his bright lights, dropped the visibility to less than a foot. Suddenly, the rope holding him in place snapped loose. Adrift in the raging current, Aaron reached out for anything that would stop him from being swept out to sea. But as he extended his arm, Aaron felt a searing pain and a numbing impact. He couldn't see, move his arm or get to the surface. He began to panic.
Aaron, in his mid-20s and in excellent health, dropped out of an archaeological degree program to travel the world in search of exciting new shipwrecks and other historically significant finds. He was athletic, and had completed his Open Water certification during an intense, semester-long university program. Since then, he had logged dozens of low-visibility dives.
Aaron was in Asia and working in a local dive store when he heard stories of a wooden-hulled ship that sank near the mouth of a nearby river. The wreck was something of a local legend, and various sources put its age anywhere between 100 and 1,000 years old. Aaron was told that the ship, though badly decayed, was mostly intact. The locals claimed that every few years--in an extremely dry season, and when the nearby ocean tides were low--they could see parts of the ship protruding from the mud. The visibility of the water at the site was almost zero, but the wreck was in shallow water and easily accessible, even from a small rowboat. Aside from the crocodiles resting along the shore, the biggest danger at this site, by far, was the current.
Aaron soon convinced two other foreigners living in the area help him explore the site. They used one of the dive shop's small boats and hired a local guide, and within a couple days, they discovered the "ancient" shipwreck, in about 12 feet of water and within a few hundred feet of land. They marked the site so only they could identify it, rigged a makeshift airlift and began the illegal excavation of what they hoped was an archaeological wonder.
To battle the current, the divers rigged up a small sand anchor with about 20 feet of line. By holding the line or clipping it to their BCs, they could maintain a stable position while removing the layers coating the wreck. Once they finished uncovering one area, they'd let out a little line to move farther down current and excavate the next section. None of the divers had any experience or training in underwater excavation or salvage work, so they had no appreciation for the potential dangers they might encounter as they painstakingly searched for buried treasure.
Periodically, their makeshift anchor would break free and they'd find themselves being swept along with the current. What they failed to realize was the effect of the excavation on the ship and how the decayed structure shifted as silt was removed from around it. At times, the divers were unknowingly working in small trenches or underneath dangerous overhangs, but the poor visibility made them unaware of these precarious situations.
The day of the accident, Aaron's sand anchor broke loose, and the current buffeted him down the side of their excavation work. As Aaron let go of the airlift and struggled to grab something, his left arm became trapped between two exposed boards on the wreck. A shattered fragment of wood about 2 inches in diameter penetrated all the way through his wetsuit and his arm, coming out the other side. The pain was nearly paralyzing, and Aaron struggled to slow his breathing rate and bring his panic under control. He was trapped: He couldn't go forward; he couldn't go backward; and, most important, he couldn't go up. He'd been underwater for more than an hour and working hard, so he knew his air supply was low, but with his left arm pinned, he couldn't even reach his gauge to check.
On board the boat, Aaron's dive buddy, Roger, quickly noticed the airlift drifting free in the current and hauled it back to the boat by the hose. Though the pair had no prearranged surface signals, Roger could see Aaron's bubbles, so he thought everything was OK. Aaron had been pinned for more than 20 minutes at this point. He knew his arm was badly cut and that he was impaled on a segment of the ship, but he couldn't see how fast he was bleeding or do anything to break away from the ship. As he struggled and battled the intense pain, Aaron hoped that Roger would realize his predicament and come help him.
Finally, Roger became concerned. It was getting late and with the setting sun came a whole new set of dangers. Roger donned his equipment and stepped into the water. Due to the incoming tide, the current had slowed a bit. He positioned himself over Aaron's trail of bubbles and descended while swimming to hold his position in the bubble stream. Roger's strategy worked, and he soon located Aaron on the bottom. Aaron was conscious and responsive, but Roger couldn't get him to move toward the surface or even move away from the wreck. It took five minutes before Roger realized Aaron's predicament. He found Aaron's SPG, and was alarmed to find that Aaron had only 300 psi remaining in his single cylinder. He carefully felt around the trapped arm, and without warning, grabbed Aaron by the shoulder and ripped his arm out of the hole. Aaron nearly lost consciousness as he began bleeding freely. Roger dragged him to the surface and aboard the small boat where he used his dive knife to cut Aaron's wetsuit into a makeshift bandage. He applied pressure to the wound and drove quickly to the nearest populated beach area. Aaron was transported to a local medical center where he received a large number of stitches, treatment for blood loss and--eventually--treatment for a dangerous infection. He survived his ordeal, but today he bears some serious scars from the accident.
First, it's worthy to note that Aaron's ancient shipwreck turned out to be a plywood-hulled fishing boat abandoned in the early to mid-twentieth century after it was stripped of its engine and other useful hardware. This turned out to be fortunate for the divers because once the nature of their accident was reported to authorities, they would have faced severe legal ramifications if the shipwreck had in fact been of historical significance. Dives of this nature require specialized training and a full working knowledge of commercial diving procedures, including learning how to analyze and stabilize the object being excavated. The wreck could have easily rolled over, crushing or trapping Aaron on the bottom. In addition, excavation and salvage are activities that require specialized equipment. Divers need larger gas supplies (preferably surface supplied), redundant gases for emergencies, safety divers and reliable communication with the whole team. Aaron and Roger lacked all of these requirements. Additionally, Aaron was diving solo, and even among solo diving proponents, he would have been condemned for his lack of proper training and equipment for a safe solo dive. All things considered, Aaron got away with a very cheap lesson.
Lessons for Life
Limited visibility diving requires special training and preparation.
and salvage are serious and dangerous businesses. Never attempt them without proper training.
specialized training and special equipment. Never attempt a solo dive without them and never on a commercial dive. A commercial diver always has a tender and a safety diver in place of a buddy.
of this nature require the diver to communicate with the surface. Never dive without a signaling system that is well rehearsed and functional--preferably electronic voice communications.