When Jack landed on his knees at 190 feet, he was actually relieved for a moment. At least the harrowing descent was over, and he had survived the rapid plunge without rupturing his eardrums. He'd missed the top deck of the shipwreck, though, and the vessel now loomed over him like a skyscraper. Jack took a deep breath to calm himself, then tried once more to inflate his air cell. No luck. The roar of the power inflator was immediately matched with the bubbling sound of air being vented by the overpressure valve. The bladder simply would not inflate. Even through the haze of narcosis his plight was clear: Jack was trapped on the seafloor.
Jack was an experienced recreational diver who had recently become a certified technical diver. When it was time to purchase equipment, he searched the internet for used tech diving gear and found a "great deal" on the exact harness and wing system he had used in training. Jack coupled his harness system to a used pair of extremely heavy, 104-cubic-foot steel tanks he found at a yard sale. Finally, he was ready to dive. Well almost. First, he prudently took the BC system and tanks to a local dive shop to have them inspected and serviced.
He picked up his freshly serviced gear and immediately headed for Ft. Lauderdale to dive one of the area's premier deep wrecks. He knew the rule about never diving "new" equipment for the first time on a deep dive, but he reasoned that he was exempt since the setup was familiar and because he planned to limit his dive to the superstructure at 140 feet. The current was surprisingly mild, and the sea conditions were calm as the dive boat anchored into the wreck.
Jack was the first in. The boat crew noted that he did not surface to signal an OK before swimming to the anchor line, but given the calm conditions, they were not too concerned. The two other divers in Jack's buddy team entered the water in turn and swam toward the bow, surprised to find no sign of Jack. Signaling to each other, they decided to look for their friend on the wreck.
Jack's BC had malfunctioned and would not hold air. As soon as he stepped into the water, the extreme negative buoyancy caused by the twin steel tanks on his back, the steel plate of his technical diving harness and a third decompression cylinder hanging under his arm began pulling him toward the bottom. Unable to stop his descent, Jack worked frantically to clear his ears and tried to swim forward in order to land near the wreck. Once on the bottom, he made several more attempts at inflating his air cell, all without success. Jack assessed his situation. He would never be able to swim his gear back up, and the risks of a free ascent from this depth were too great. He could think of only one other option. Jack began crawling toward the wreck, hoping that he could climb up the ship and make his way to the anchor line.
When Jim and Al reached the top of the wreck, they noticed a profuse stream of bubbles coming from the vessel's side. Peering over the railing, they were shocked to see Jack crawling across the sand. In a quick exchange of hand signals, the divers agreed that Al would go after him while Jim would observe from the railing, ready to lend assistance. Al quickly realized the problem. He grabbed Jack by the tank valve, inflated his own BC, and dragged his friend back to the rail, where he and Jim were able to muscle Jack to the anchor line. Assisted by his buddies, Jack then clawed his way, hand over hand, up the anchor line and completed his decompression stops. With extreme effort, the divers and the boat crew were able to haul Jack on board.
An examination of Jack's gear found that the interior surfaces of the bladder he was using had somehow stuck together. When Jack attempted to inflate the air cell, the air flowed down one side of the bladder and directly to the overpressurization valve, where it was vented. The small amount of air retained in the bladder was insufficient to offset the negative buoyancy of Jack's heavy technical diving rig.
Jack made several errors on this dive, all of which were in clear violation of his training. He failed to do a shallow-water checkout in a relatively safe location with his newly assembled equipment. Such a dive would have revealed the problem and prevented the accident. Jack also ignored the rule that a redundant air cell is required for deep divers using wetsuits and an equipment package that is too heavy for them to swim to the surface. Finally, Jack carried with him a surface marker lift bag with a 100-pound capacity. Although not intended for use as a redundant buoyancy device, it certainly could have been used in this emergency situation.
While Jack did the right thing in having his equipment serviced before the dive, he chose a shop that was not familiar with technical equipment. The shop's technician apparently did not fully inflate the bladder to check it for leaks during the service process, or he would have diagnosed the problem. Fortunately for Jack, these errors were overcome by the cool-headed response of his buddies and the good fortune of excellent sea conditions. Had the current swept Jack away from the wreck, or if conditions on the surface had been worse, this accident might have been fatal.
Lessons for Life
This means qualified for the specific equipment that you are using.
They are not written for when everything goes right, but for when something goes wrong.
Jack should have immediately thought to deploy his surface marker bag as soon as his BC failed.