Henry's heart was pounding hard. His air supply was dangerously low, and he knew the three divers inside the wreck must have even less air because their dive was deeper and they were working as they penetrated the wreck. He swam a short way inside, hoping to find some sign of his friends. Finding no trace of them, he became even more anxious. Finally, in desperation, he ascended to the surface, where he blew his whistle to alert the dive boat crew that there was a problem 130 feet below. The captain immediately sprang into action, taking the steps necessary to get a rescue attempt started.
Henry, Paul, Jim and John were experienced divers with varying levels of advanced certifications, though to the knowledge of investigators, none of them were formally trained in wreck penetration. The divers were apparently all in good health and had made recent dives on the wreck that was the scene of this incident.
The dive was a planned penetration into the pump room of a popular ship sunk intentionally for divers. This dive, by any measure, was an advanced, technical penetration that would take the men below 130 feet and through narrow, silty engineering passages with no direct access to the surface. The divers entered the water wearing single cylinders with small stage bottles. Some of the divers also carried wreck penetration reels. Ordinarily, a wreck penetration team begins a dive such as this by tying off a guideline outside the wreck and pulling a reel behind them, spooling off a continuous line that will lead them to the exit even if visibility is poor. Instead, this four-man buddy team opted to leave one diver outside the wreck and a trail of chemical light sticks floating on the ceiling to mark their way. When the divers reached some of the more restricted passages, they removed their stage bottles and left them behind for recovery when they exited. The divers made it to the pump room, but that's where the dive took a turn for the worse.
When the team turned the dive, they found the passageway clouded with silt. Disoriented and confused, the divers split up. One diver headed toward the exit and the other two moved in a different direction. By this point, the divers were probably very low on air given that each was using only a standard-sized single cylinder, and they were most likely suffering distress and anxiety after realizing they were lost inside the wreck. The diver posted outside the vessel was also low on air. However, at significant risk to himself, he penetrated the wreck a short distance, attempting to locate the missing divers. Without success, he exited and surfaced immediately, signaling for assistance from the dive boat.
As the Coast Guard arrived, two divers from another dive boat, who were also diving the same area of the wreck, came upon the body of Paul, the first victim. He was found inside the passageway just a short distance from his waiting stage bottle. Hoping that there was some possibility of rescue, the divers immediately brought Paul to the surface. Coast Guard personnel attempted CPR and other resuscitative efforts, but he never recovered. Later in the day, a search team of qualified technical divers located the bodies of the other two missing divers deep inside the narrow, restricted passages of the wreck. The recovery effort would take two more days and involve multiple dives due to the extreme risk and difficulty.
This poorly planned dive was destined to end in tragedy. There is no indication that any of the divers had been adequately trained for advanced wreck penetration, and they lacked (or didn't use) equipment that could have saved their lives--starting with a larger gas supply. Each of the divers should have been equipped with twin back-mounted cylinders to ensure adequate breathing gas for this profile. This step alone might have given the divers adequate time to resolve their disorientation and find their way to the exit. Though some of the divers had penetration reels clipped to their equipment, there is no evidence to indicate that any of the reels had been used. The use of so-called "picket lights" works only in clear water, and trained penetration divers would never rely on this method of navigating inside a shipwreck. Given the training and experience of these divers, they should have recognized the danger of what they were attempting. The only thing that went right on this dive was Henry's exercise of the discipline required to prevent this from becoming a quadruple fatality.
Lessons for Life
for specialized activities before you attempt those types of dives. Untrained penetration diving is an all too common--and completely preventable--cause of diving fatalities.
for the type of dive to be completed. Shortcuts in life support equipment frequently only serve to cut your life short.
always maintain a continuous guideline back to open water.
For technically complicated dives such as this one, divers should use their training to calculate, and carry with them, the amount of gas required along with a generous reserve.