Sam and Sally Panicked Underwater


Panic – A sudden overwhelming fear (with or without cause) that produces hysterical or irrational behavior, anxiety, confusion and often causes wildly unthinking behavior.

We’re going to review a panic scenario, how it was handled and the outcome, as well as an analysis of the situation that occurred and how it could have been prevented. Everything about this story is true, excluding the location and names of the divers…

Early summer morning somewhere tropical and sunny, Sam and Sally made their descent to a maximum depth of 60M/220FT, breathing a suitable trimix for the dive on their closed circuit rebreathers. Sam and Sally gave each other the “OK” signal once they hit depth and swam along the bottom. Roughly 5-10 minutes into the dive, Sam inhaled a mouth full of water and began coughing. Sam quickly bailed out to his 6L/40FT3 cylinder of AIR and felt narcosis coming on strong. Sam found the problem after tracing his hands along the rebreather; the loop connection to the head became disconnected, flooding the entire unit. Meanwhile, Sally heard Sam’s coughs and recognized he switched to open circuit. Sally started swimming towards Sam then he suddenly and frantically started kicking towards the surface. Sam panicked. Sally didn’t think twice and chased after him yelling, “Sam! Slow down! Sam!!” as she tried to grab a hold of his fins while ripping off her personal deep bailout regulator from her necklace hoping to give it to him. Sally panicked. Fortunately, Sam slowed down, allowing Sally to catch up to him around 15M/50FT where she realized he did not need her bailout… Sam reconnected his loop and cleared the water out of his rebreather, then recovered the unit. Sally did not realize Sam depleted his deep bailout gas, nor did she realize he flooded the unit on the bottom… Sam recognized he had to switch back to open circuit since his rebreather was deficient and gave Sally the “thumbs up” signal as he started making his way towards shallow water. They both had some decompression obligations and 6L/40FT3 of oxygen each. Sam and Sally found a sand patch at 6M/20FT to finish out their decompression time then surfaced. Sam never switched back to open circuit and stayed on the loop.

ANALYSIS – A number of things went wrong throughout the course of this scenario. Both Sam and Sally are lucky to have completed this dive without suffering any injuries, or even death. By reviewing the course of action throughout the scenario we can take a closer look at how all of this could have been prevented in a step by step sequence…

  • Sam and Sally should have planned for adequate bailout (volume / mix) for the dive. If Sam’s bailout was suitable for the depth, narcosis would not have been an issue and he should not have been faced with the fear of running out of gas while making a safe ascent. This is why we execute proper planning – to avoid situations like this!
  • Sam and Sally very seldom practiced emergency scenario skills. The two of them have a lot of diving experience and did not feel the need to do “skills dives” to stay current. Unfortunately, their complacency snuck up on them during this event, allowing panic to take over versus fluent muscle memory reaction to the situation.
  • In the midst of panic, Sally made a major mistake by trying to give Sam her personal deep bailout gas while making a rapid ascent chasing after him. If Sam had taken it from her and she had an issue; Sally would not have a safe back up option for herself. Sally is lucky she did not suffer any injuries by ascending so quickly.
  • Sam made a mistake by getting back on his rebreather after he flooded the unit. His ego took over and he wanted to prove he could finish the dive on the rebreather versus open circuit. Never let your ego compromise your safety. At the end of the day, there should have been enough open circuit gas for Sam to finish the dive without putting himself in jeopardy.
  • If you’re wondering how the loop became disconnected to begin with, don’t worry – we’re saving it for last… Sam used this rebreather all week during the trip without breaking it down at the end of the day and setting it up before diving. Over the course of the week in transit from his hotel room to the dive boat, the connection slowly loosened up. If Sam and Sally followed the manufacturer’s recommendations regarding rebreather maintenance, completed checklists and more; all of this could have been avoided. Sam failed to follow any form of checklists and blindly used his rebreather throughout the trip until his complacency finally caught up to him.

Too often after events such as this, divers feel they gained a higher level of competence in the water. Survival does not always mean competence. Dive after dive, this team rationalized their short cut of carrying improper bailout because nothing bad happened to them before this event. Sam and Sally allowed their short cut of inadequate bailout and lack of attention to their life sustaining equipment to become the norm for their dives and when a real emergency occurred, their plan B was not sufficient enough to get them out in a safe manner. They knew it and panicked. Luckily, they survived without injury.

Instead of going by the saying, “practice makes perfect,” consider a revised version: Practice makes better. It’s important to apply safe diving practices on every single dive and keep emergency scenario skills quick and fresh. Do not get complacent and never allow your ego to convince you that practicing skills is not important. Continue working on them regardless of how much experience you gain. In the event of a true emergency, your reaction should stem from muscle memory and become mechanical without any fear and hesitation. Plan your dives accordingly and remember, panic has a way of setting in and taking over, just as you see with Sam and Sally.

Contact SDI TDI and ERDI

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