Twice the Tragedy | Scuba Diving

Twice the Tragedy

Mary surfaced from her dive, and began to climb aboard the commercial dive boat. She was amazed to see someone on a small boat nearby actually screaming at her group of divers: "Did you see anyone down there? Did you see anyone down there?" Climbing out of her gear, she watched as the crew of her boat sprang into action. One was initiating contact with the Coast Guard while others were coordinating a search for a pair of missing divers from the smaller vessel. They weren't getting much useful information from the panicked "captain" of the small boat, however. He was unable to tell them the name of his vessel, if he had a radio, or exactly what had happened.

The Divers

Bob, Jack and Janet were divers who lived in an area that afforded them frequent access to the ocean. Both Jack and Janet were reasonably experienced divers, although Janet had not made a dive since the late 1990s. On a beautiful spring day, the three were diving from a small private boat on a reef with a maximum depth of 50 feet.

The Accident

Jack was diving in a damaged BC that had obviously been ripped open and then inadequately repaired. Although details are sketchy, it appears that Jack's repaired BC failed shortly after he entered the water and that he was over-weighted for the dive. When Jack's BC failed, he began struggling to stay afloat at the surface, and began to get tangled in the line of his surface float. Janet swam over and attempted to assist, removing her regulator from her mouth as she did so. In his panicked state, Jack grabbed her as she approached and both divers were immediately pulled below the surface. During the struggle, the divers had drifted away from the boat.

Bob, who had been left aboard as a tender, watched in horror as his friends went under. Unable to operate the vessel or even to use the radio to call for assistance, he began yelling to nearby boats. He was finally able to signal a nearby dive charter vessel. Once the charter boat was aware of the situation, the crew began assisting in the search for the missing divers. They approached the surface float and attempted to pull it, and hopefully the divers, from the water. Unfortunately, the line broke and the crew only succeeded in pulling the surface float from the water. Ultimately, several boats and the U.S. Coast Guard would work in a well-orchestrated effort to save the divers, but these efforts were too late to be successful.

Approximately one-and-a-half hours after Jack and Janet entered the water, their bodies were found entangled in the float line. Both had drowned even though they had substantial amounts of air remaining in their cylinders and their regulators were still functioning.

Analysis

The mistakes that caused this accident began before the dive, when Jack opted to dive with a damaged BC. As a general rule, any damage to a BC's air cell bigger than a pinhole leak should not be repaired. Jack should have replaced the BC or at least the air bladder.

Although Bob was left aboard the boat, all reports indicate he was unqualified to be a surface tender. You should never dive from an unattended vessel. However, it is probably worse to leave the vessel in the hands of someone who is unqualified to operate the boat, its radio, or emergency equipment. The charter boat crew also erred in attempting to pull the divers to the surface by the thin float line, which was not intended to bear the weight of a diver. This action, and the resulting break, may have caused the divers to become entangled or worsened their entanglement. It could have also pulled the regulators away from the divers, creating an out-of-air situation.

Jack's body was recovered still wearing a substantial amount of lead. Even with a ripped BC, had either diver released Jack's weight belt and discarded it, he would have floated easily at the surface and avoided this tragedy. Unfortunately, failure to ditch weights and achieve positive buoyancy is a common mistake in fatal diving accidents.

There is no evidence that Janet had rescue training, and the fact that the divers were both found entangled in the same line and drowned indicates that Janet's attempts to assist Jack only created a double fatality. Rescue certification would have helped Janet assess the problem and realize both the need to use her own regulator during the rescue attempt and the necessity of releasing Jack's weights. This training would also have made her aware of the dangers encountered when approaching a struggling diver.

When adversity strikes, you must stop, breathe, think, act and avoid panic at all cost. The reports reveal no logical reason why the divers drowned with full tanks and functioning regulators, so the obvious conclusion is that panic overrode reasonable thought and caused these divers to drown.

Lessons for Life

  • Be frugal-not stupid. Always leave a qualified operator aboard any boat you are diving from.

  • Never haul divers to the surface with a descent line. When assisting divers from the surface, avoid pulling them up unless you know exactly what their status is under water.

  • Never dive with patched life support equipment. Either replace the defective equipment or have a complete repair done by a qualified repair technician.

  • Keep your skills current. If it has been more than a year since your last dive, get a refresher.

  • When in trouble under water, get positive. Ditch your weights, inflate your BC and discard any unnecessary equipment. Do anything you can to help the water push you to the surface.

  • Never approach a struggling diver, even on the surface, without breathing from a functioning regulator. You will only jeopardize your own safety.

  • Don't panic. No matter what circumstance you find yourself in, stop, breathe, think and then act.

  • Get rescue certified. The course will teach you how to properly assist other divers.

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