“Man, what a story I have for you!” were the first words I heard as I answered my phone when my slip neighbor called. ”The new guy down four slips almost killed his son-in-law diving today!”
I was about to pull into the marina anyway, so I told him I would meet him at our boats and get the whole story. And what a story I got.
As he was walking to his boat the guy four boats down was sitting on the dock overhanging his boat, head in his hands, tears flowing, and telling another friend, “I think I just killed my son-in-law.” The man and his son-in-law had set out earlier in the day for a dive on a tugboat shipwreck. They never imagined that a simple pleasure dive would end up nearly costing one of them their life.
I later had occasion to get the full story from the actual diver.
It was summer, but Lake Michigan is pretty cold most of the year, with bottom temperatures approximately 45 degrees on this particular day (surface temperatures were about 65 degrees) and wreck bottom depth is approximately 135 feet. They were diving using air. The dive was an impromptu adventure in a boat that they had worked to make seaworthy over the previous winter, with hopes of one day setting it up as a dive charter in the area.
Since the dive was planned on short notice, they hadn’t had an opportunity to get someone to go with them, leaving noone on-board the boat when they went down for their dive on the wreck to which they were moored.
While on their way down to the wreck, at approximately 95 feet, the son-in-law experienced a free flowing regulator. The divers began an “emergency ascent” (as they described it) to 20 feet where they were planned to conduct a safety stop. The ascent was conducted in a buddy breathing process using an octopus regulator due to the loss of air in the son-in-law’s tank from the free flowed regulator.
While at the safety stop, the two encountered a very long free-floating pile of copper fishing line (a line that is used regularly by sport fisherman in the Great Lakes that is literally copper wire and can be difficult to cut) floating in the current and became entangled. This was suspended in the water column by a float on the surface and entangled them at the safety stop.
Working to free themselves from the line, the father-in-law had to release his grip of the son-in-law for a period of time to work his cutting tool. By the time he was able to get back to the son-in-law, he was limp and unresponsive, having not been able to reach the father-in-law’s secondary regulator for an unknown period of time.
At this point the father-in-law made the choice to release the weights from the son-in-law’s gear and conduct an emergency surfacing, dragging him to the surface. He then dragged him up the ladder of the boat, began some initial CPR, then called the Coast Guard. All by himself.
The Coast Guard was provided their GPS coordinates, and he went back to conducting CPR. The Coast Guard arrived after a period of time, how long I do not know, but knowing the area, my guess is no less than 15 minutes. They transferred the son-in-law to their patrol boat and continued to provide EMT services on the way to the dock where the patient was transferred to a waiting ambulance. At this time he was exhibiting a slow and faint pulse and the EMTs were administering breathing treatments.
The good news from this story is that the son-in-law survived. By evening, although with no recollection of the event, he was alert, and experiencing a very sore chest from the compressions that were conducted during CPR. He is a very lucky individual.
I work in aviation, and in aviation, we analyze every, and I mean EVERY accident in detail. Even if it isn’t fatal. What we typically find is that an accident or incident is never caused by any one thing, but is the result of numerous causal and contributory factors. Any one thing may not cause the accident, but when multiple things happen, so do accidents. This is true in diving as well, however we usually don’t have the same details and accident analysis for every event in diving. Let’s analyze the details we have for this one.
The gear – Neither diver had equipment that was intended to be used in cold water environments. It is postulated that the gear may have experienced the free flow due to the lack of being designed to be used in cold water environments. It was also later relayed to me that they had never had their gear serviced. Neither diver had backup gear either. Many divers who frequent deeper wrecks in cold water in the Great Lakes (and other places) dive with redundant gear. Having a simple H-valve on the single dive tank and two regulators may have allowed this situation to be resolved without emptying a tank and needing to buddy breath.
Pre-dive planning – Numerous risk factors were ignored in the pre-dive planning here. The gear concerns could have been addressed with some pre-dive planning considerations. Perhaps they could have obtained more appropriate gear or even decided to not go if they knew more about the risk factors. Certainly, it would have been recommended to have another person on the boat while they were diving. We all know leaving a boat unattended opens a diver up to numerous risks including loss of the boat if the mooring becomes undone, but in this case it would also have expedited the response time to the incident if there would have been someone on board to drive the boat and another person to administer CPR as they proceeded toward shore or to meet the Coast Guard boat that had been dispatched.
Unforeseen circumstances – No, it wasn’t the diver’s fault that they encountered free-floating fishing line. Entanglement is a factor that should always be considered, and it was a positive point in this case that the divers had a tool with to cut materials in which they could become entangled. This was an element of the incident that is a part of cascading risk factors. Had the initial problem of the free-flowing regulator not been experienced, they would likely have been executing a less rushed ascent and may have noticed the potential danger instead of becoming entangled. Focusing on one problem can lead to missing warning signs of another one that may result either causally or independently.
Training – To the best of my knowledge, at the time of the incident, neither diver was certified at a level greater than Advanced Open Water. While 135 feet isn’t excessively deep, it is certainly beyond sport limits and recommendations for most if not all dive certification agencies. Ignoring these recommendations without proper training for the depth to which they were going certainly showed a disregard for the training recommendations for cold water, depth, and training considerations. Such training may have been able to influence better decisions about the dives and equipment that could have mitigated the occurrence of this incident.
A general safety mindset – Throughout diving a general safety mindset is what keeps us safe. No dive is without any risk, but risks can be mitigated by eliminating potential causal factors that can turn dangers into critical situations. Diving without someone on the boat, with incorrect equipment for the conditions, and having a general attitude that was not focused on minimizing risk factors led to these divers encountering a situation that could potentially have been avoided.
Five Hazardous Attitudes
Aviation instructors are taught to be aware of Five Hazardous Attitudes. They include Anti-Authority (Don’t tell me), Impulsivity (Do it quickly), Invulnerability (It won’t happen to me), Macho (I can do it) and Resignation (What’s the use?). While in this incident, Resignation wasn’t the issue, in fact, the opposite of giving up is probably what saved the son-in-law’s life as the father-in-law continued CPR on an unresponsive individual. That considered, most of the other attitudes were factors. These divers exhibited anti-authority and macho attitudes enough to think they could do it when others said they shouldn’t (think training recommendations for the depths), were impulsive enough to go do a dive with less crew than ideal because they hastily planned their diving day, and felt invulnerable enough to assume nothing bad would happen to them on this dive.
When my slip neighbor saw our fellow marina mate on the dock with his head in his hands and tears flowing, the father-in-law honestly thought he had gotten his son-in-law killed at that point; it was right after he parked his boat, having watched the Coast Guard transfer the son-in-law to the ambulance and leave for a nearby hospital. The hours between that and when he got a positive report from his daughter had to be torture.
But was anything learned? Well, I hope that me sharing this story with the readers of Dive Training helps others learn. These two did not learn. In fact, less than a month after the incident, and only after a fellow diver had gone and retrieved the son-in-law’s gear that was released and sank to the bottom, the two divers used the same equipment, with no servicing, to go diving again on the same wreck. Anti-authority, Macho, and Invulnerability again showing their hazardous attitudes that could easily lead to future incidents.
Jason Blair is an FAA Pilot Examiner who writes in the aviation industry but is also an active certified Master and Trimix diver who dives most frequently in the Great Lakes.
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