Diver Down - One Simple Mistake
Bill awoke on the deck screaming in pain. Moments ago, he had finished a beautiful dive and now he could not even walk.
Lessons for Life - Dive Accidents, Close Calls & How You Can Avoid Them
By Mike Ange
Each Diver Down case presented on Seaduction.com is based on a true case that has been and thoroughly investigated using official sources and interviews with participants and witnesses. Names and some minor details have been changed to protect victims and their families.
One Simple Mistake
Bill awoke on the deck screaming in pain. Moments ago, he had finished a beautiful dive and now he could not even walk. The divemaster and boat captain were attempting to treat his injuries, but Bill was disoriented and combative. He couldn’t recall how he got here. He remembered surfacing from his 170-foot technical dive. He remembered boarding the boat, laughing and joking and comparing notes on an outstanding dive. Now there was no laughter on the boat, only anxious discussions about immobilizing Bill’s head, neck and legs and of summoning an ambulance to meet them dockside. Groggy from the extreme pain radiating from his legs and from a pounding headache, Bill slipped back into unconsciousness.
Bill was in his late 40s, in excellent health and a very active diver. In fact, he was an active dive instructor logging dozens of dives per year. Bill was known in the industry for being extremely safety conscious and a stickler for details.
Bill was in south Florida diving with a group of eight certified technical divers over the course of several days. Their dive week was off to a sketchy start due to unfavorable winds and slightly rough seas. They had been forced to divert to shallower dive sites on the first day when surface conditions had challenged the digestive fortitude of even the hardiest divers in the group. The second day had started better with calmer seas that allowed them to hit their target, a wreck lying 170 feet below the surface, but bad weather was clearly threatening. The divers had divided into two teams and begun their descent to the beautiful hull of the intact natural wreck lying below. The current was mild and the visibility was above average as the divers reached the wreck, completed a 30-minute dive and slightly more than 30 minutes of decompression. The divers in Bill’s team boarded the boat and he was pleased to see the first team all back on board in excellent spirits and feeling good. The excitement on the deck of the boat was electric as this had truly been an almost perfect dive day.
As the second group was boarding, the wind began picking up and the charter vessel began to be tossed about. Bill was toward the front of the dive deck, beneath the fly bridge, conducting a debriefing with his group of divers when the fortunes of the dive day turned dramatically. A rogue wave hit the port side causing the boat to roll hard to starboard and sent the divers scrambling for something, anything, to hold onto. The deck rolled hard back to port as the boat righted itself, and that was when 165 pounds of twin cylinders complete with BCD and regulators pitched out of the starboard stank racks and caught Bill just above the ankles. He was shoved backward onto the deck, his head striking full force with a dull thud, rendering him unconscious. Adding to the confusion, a low-pressure hose snapped at the fitting when the tank struck the deck and the air was filled with the shrieking sound of escaping air.
There was another technical instructor and a diving medical technician aboard the vessel and as Bill hit the deck the DMT and the boat crew were already in motion. First, the regulator valves were secured to shut down the escaping air. The tanks were then carefully removed from Bill’s legs and properly secured in a tank rack. A quick assessment revealed that Bill’s left leg was almost certainly broken and that he was suffering from possible head and neck injuries sustained during the fall. The boat crew immediately set about ensuring that everything was secured on board, while the other divers assisted in immobilizing Bill to prevent further injury. As they were immobilizing his legs, Bill regained consciousness and began screaming in agony. He was confused and disoriented and had no recollection of the accident. He was convinced that he had DCS and demanded oxygen which he was given just to alleviate his fears. Bill was transported back to the dock and then to a local emergency room where x-rays revealed no significant head or neck injuries but a broken left tibia. The leg was set and he was monitored for signs of a concussion overnight before being released. After a few weeks in a cast, Bill resumed diving.
Most divers know that complacency can lead to injuries and fatalities. What is less commonly known is that many of these injuries (or worse) happen on the surface before or after the dive. Most divers are cautious prior to the dive, taking great pains to set up their equipment properly, checking every detail and developing careful dive plans. After the dive, it is easy for even the most conscientious of divers to become complacent, especially after a nearly perfect dive where everything goes right, the conditions are wonderful and the dive day seems to be done.
This was certainly the situation that led to Bill’s injuries. An otherwise careful diver completed his dive, surfaced, boarded the boat safely and decided that the dive was over. Not only did he fail to bungee his primary cylinders to the tank rack, he also left his stage tanks, fins and other equipment scattered on the deck for other divers to trip on. When the wave hit, all of this loose gear went flying, creating serious hazards for everyone on board. Any one of these items could have led to serious injury and, unfortunately, one did. In some ways, this group was fortunate. Had a valve sheared off one of the loose tanks, the damage could have been much more widespread and the injuries severe.
Experienced instructors and savvy divers have a saying: “The dive is not over until the boat is unloaded at the dock.” It is a wise observation because far more divers are injured on the surface than are injured underwater. Pitching boat decks are unavoidable, but unsecured equipment, a cluttered deck and risky leaps from dock to boat are all examples of risk factors a diver can avoid with careful pre- and post-dive care. Ironically, this was a lesson that Bill taught his students in every class.
Lessons for Life
• The dive is never over until the boat is back at dock and the gear is unloaded. Don’t take short cuts, even when everything seems to be going right.
• The dive starts before you load the boat. Don’t take shortcuts assembling your gear, loading your gear, or securing your gear aboard the vessel.
• Many diving accidents occur on the surface. It is important to take precautions so that you don’t end up as a statistics.
• Follow the boat’s rules. Every boat has procedures for securing equipment and these are intended for your safety. Follow them.
Drawing on his training as an a police and military investigator, boat captain, dive store owner and as an instructor trainer with multiple certification agencies, Mike Ange, founder and chief visionary of Seaduction.com, has been analyzing real-world dive accidents and fatalities for nearly a decade. From 2001 to 2008, he was Scuba Diving magazine’s “Lesson for Life” columnist and he is the author of “Diver Down: Real World SCUBA Accidents and How to Avoid Them.” He has also served on training or safety advisory boards for SSI, TDI, PSAI, NASE, SDI and ERDI.