Mark splashed into the water, enjoying the cool embrace. It was a welcome change after the sweltering heat of the boat deck, and he was eager to be first on the wreck below. His BC was deflated, and the weight of his double tanks pulled him rapidly downward. He rolled over to a proper swimming position and touched the inflator to slow his descent. Then his regulator quit breathing. Switching to his backup, he got two short breaths before it stopped delivering air, too. Realizing his error, he attempted to reach behind his head for the tank valves as he sank to the ocean's bottom. Unable to reach them, he struggled to loosen the straps of his BC as he continued to drop deeper.
Mark was an experienced technical diver and a recreational instructor with a significant number of dives at depths well in excess of 100 feet. He was in his late 30s and in excellent physical condition.
Seas were calm as the charter boat departed for a popular wreck off the North Carolina coast. Even though the dive was only slightly deeper than 100 feet, Mark chose to use his familiar technical gear setup because of the security offered by the added gas supply.
On the two-hour commute to the wreck, Mark and his dive buddy discussed their plan to collect artifacts. When they were 10 minutes from the wreck, Mark rapidly climbed into his wetsuit and began strapping on gear. The crew dropped anchor, but missed the wreck on their first pass. Covered in neoprene and weighted down by his gear, Mark sat in the sun and sweltering heat, longing to enter the water. As soon as the wreck was hooked, he was the first to the entry door. With a quick wave to the mate, he fell backward into the water.
By design, Mark entered the water with his BC deflated to allow the weight of the gear to pull him into a rapid descent. He and his buddy planned to meet under the boat between 15 and 30 feet to complete a fast gear check. It was a practice they had repeated on a number of previous technical dives.
By the time Mark's buddy entered the water, Mark had already descended well past the pre-arranged check depth. Although visibility was good, the buddy was unable to locate Mark upon reaching the wreck. He searched for a few moments before ascending with the assumption that Mark had surfaced due to some type of equipment problem.In Mark's haste to get into his equipment, he failed to turn on either of his two tank valves--an error that could have been corrected on the surface had he not been in such a hurry, or during the check stop had he not been descending so fast. Mark was unable to get his air turned on in the water, and his body was recovered from the bottom just a few yards down current from the wreck. His BC straps were partially removed and his backup regulator was clenched tightly in his mouth, but the recovering divers noticed that neither regulator was capable of delivering air.
Although witnesses--including Mark's buddy--were certain they saw Mark check his submersible pressure gauge, it's likely that he was only reading residual pressure left in the breathing system from his initial gear setup at the dock. After pressurizing his system to check for leaks, Mark would have turned the air off for the two-hour boat ride. In his rush to suit up, Mark failed to turn the cylinders back on before entering the water.
The residual pressure in each of the regulators would have allowed Mark a few breaths as he sank to the bottom. However, his attempt to inflate his BC and slow his descent would have robbed him of some of that breathing gas.
A rapid descent is not uncommon for technical divers; however, Mark sank too rapidly to meet up with his buddy for the vital in-water equipment check. This drill, usually conducted at 15 feet or less, is a standard safety procedure for technical divers.
Another issue, which will remain unexplained, is why Mark was unable to reach his tank valves. The ability to turn these valves on and off is a standard skill for technical and recreational divers. It appears as though Mark's inability to perform this basic skill, coupled with his failure to properly check his equipment, cost him his life.
Lessons For Life
- Basic water skills are not simply training exercises; they're lifesaving functions and should be practiced routinely.
- Divers should always perform a complete check of equipment before leaving the boat--even if it was checked at the dock. To ensure proper regulator function, take two or three deep breaths on your second stage while watching your pressure gauge. If the tank is turned off, or if the valve is not opened completely, the indicated pressure will drop.
- Speed kills. The ultimate issue leading to this tragedy was Mark's rushed entry in order to seek potential artifacts from the wreck. Always take time to check your equipment, to have a proper plan and to conduct the plan safely. Nothing on the bottom is worth dying for; however, this particular set of circumstances, referred to by experienced wreck divers as "brass fever," has led to numerous fatalities through stupid mistakes.