HIT THE PANIC BUT­TON

A NEW DIVER RUNS OUT OF AIR AT THE SAFETY STOP AND FORGETS HER TRAIN­ING

Scuba Diving - - Training - BY ERIC DOU­GLAS

Judie was tired when she sur­faced. It hadn’t been a good dive, and to make things worse, she ran out of air at the end of the dive within a few feet of the sur­face. Then she missed the tag line trail­ing be­hind the boat. As Judie floated away from the boat, she re­al­ized she didn’t have the en­ergy to swim back to it. She wasn’t sure what she was go­ing to do to get back on board.

THE DIVER

With only 10 dives to­tal, in­clud­ing her cer­ti­fi­ca­tion dives, Judie wasn’t 100 per­cent sure she wanted to keep div­ing. It seemed like a lot of work, and it didn’t seem to be get­ting any eas­ier. She was 52 years old and healthy with no rel­e­vant med­i­cal con­di­tions that would keep her out of the wa­ter. Still, she won­dered if she was fool­ing her­self about why she had de­cided to learn to dive in the first place. Cer­ti­fied in cool wa­ter in a lo­cal moun­tain lake close to her home, she was hop­ing div­ing would be fun. She loved look­ing at pic­tures in mag­a­zines and dream­ing about ex­otic des­ti­na­tions.

In hopes of find­ing a place where the div­ing would be more en­joy­able, Judie booked an off­shore dive trip on a boat lo­cated a few hours from her home. This trip wasn’t ex­actly ex­otic, but at least the wa­ter would be warmer, and she’d wear a thin­ner wet­suit than the one she wore while div­ing in the moun­tain lake. That had to make things a lit­tle bet­ter. And she was sure she would see some col­or­ful fish. She was look­ing for­ward to that.

THE DIVE

Judie geared up as the boat headed out from the dock. She was a lit­tle ner­vous about the dive since it was her first with­out her in­struc­tor or her dive bud­dies back home; it was also her first ocean dive. Still, it was a beau­ti­ful day, and the con­di­tions seemed per­fect. She added the same amount of weight to her BC’S in­te­grated-weight pock­ets as she had at home.

The boat’s di­ve­mas­ter could sense she was a novice diver, so he watched as she geared up and was sur­prised at the amount of weight she put in her BC pock­ets. She had asked for 30 pounds of lead. Divers on the boat typ­i­cally used be­tween 12 and 16 pounds. The di­ve­mas­ter sug­gested to her that since she was div­ing with a thin­ner wet­suit than she used at home she could leave some of the lead be­hind. Judie took some weight from her weight pock­ets, but when the di­ve­mas­ter turned his back to help an­other guest, she put the weights in her BC pock­ets. She had al­ways dived with 30 pounds at home in the lake and wasn’t com­fort­able mak­ing that change.

THE AC­CI­DENT

Sev­eral other divers on the trip noted that Judie strug­gled dur­ing the dive. She seemed to be con­stantly ad­just­ing her buoy­ancy un­der­wa­ter, adding air and then let­ting it out. At the end of the dive, she headed back to­ward the boat with the group, but af­ter the safety stop, she bolted the last 10 feet to the sur­face on her own. She had run out of air, which caused her rapid as­cent. When she sur­faced early, Judie missed the tag line, and the sur­face cur­rent pulled her away from the boat.

The rest of the divers swam un­der­wa­ter to the end of the tag line and then sur­faced and in­flated their BCS. The di­ve­mas­ter on board spot­ted Judie, and re­al­iz­ing she was float­ing away from the group, called to her to in­flate her BC. She tried, but noth­ing hap­pened when she pushed the but­ton. She ap­peared to strug­gle on the sur­face, so the di­ve­mas­ter yelled to her that she needed to orally in­flate her BC, but she didn’t lis­ten. She be­gan to strug­gle on the sur­face, flail­ing around with one arm while she con­tin­ued try­ing to use the power in­fla­tor to fill her BC. A mo­ment later, she sank be­low the sur­face and dis­ap­peared.

It took the boat crew a few min­utes to get the other divers on board and or­ga­nize a search for Judie. They got in the wa­ter as quickly as they could,

but it took two hours of search­ing and ad­di­tional emer­gency help be­fore they found Judie un­con­scious un­der­wa­ter. Her tank was empty and she had drowned. She had all 30 pounds of lead still in place.

The cause of death was ruled a drown­ing due to in­suf­fi­cient air.

ANAL­Y­SIS

It’s not un­com­mon for divers trained in colder cli­mates to for­get to ad­just their weight­ing to com­pen­sate for warmer wa­ter, espe­cially among new, less-ex­pe­ri­enced divers. They tend to dive with the weight they learned with, for­get­ting the les­son they learned in their open-wa­ter course: Do a buoy­ancy check in the wa­ter when div­ing in a dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment or with new equip­ment.

It’s also com­mon in dive fa­tal­i­ties to find divers dead un­der­wa­ter with all their weights still in place, even though ditch­ing weights is an­other skill learned dur­ing open-wa­ter train­ing. In Judie’s case, the feel­ing of ris­ing panic as she strug­gled to stay afloat while over­weighted caused her to for­get that she could sim­ply pull the weight-re­lease han­dles and drop 24 pounds of lead. Even with the re­main­ing six pounds in her BC pock­ets, she would have been pos­i­tively buoy­ant.

Of course, the en­tire chain of events be­gan when Judie ran out of air near the sur­face. If she had fin­ished the dive with even a few hun­dred pounds of breath­ing gas in her tank, she could have in­flated her BC on the sur­face and waited for the boat to come pick her up. Or more likely, had she fin­ished the dive with air in her tank, she would not have bolted for the sur­face, could have made con­tact with the tag line trail­ing be­hind the dive boat, and would have been able to in­flate her BC. She would have fin­ished the dive tired, but back on the boat.

Panic sit­u­a­tions typ­i­cally in­volve cas­cad­ing steps of in­creas­ing dis­com­fort with a fi­nal trig­ger that sets things in mo­tion. Even be­fore she be­gan the dive, Judie was un­com­fort­able be­cause she was in an en­tirely new en­vi­ron­ment. She was over­weighted and strug­gled with buoy­ancy through­out the dive, adding to her ag­i­ta­tion and dis­com­fort. She used her air quicker than she nor­mally would as she strug­gled in the wa­ter, con­stantly adding and dump­ing air from her BC.

The fi­nal trig­ger was when she ran out of air un­der­wa­ter and bolted for the sur­face. By the time she made it to the sur­face, she was likely in a full panic and not think­ing clearly. At this stage, she could have orally in­flated her BC or ditched her weights and man­aged the sit­u­a­tion, but the per­cep­tual nar­row­ing caused by the panic made it dif­fi­cult for her to re­mem­ber her train­ing or even lis­ten to the in­struc­tions from the di­ve­mas­ter on board the boat.

JUDIE TOOK SOME WEIGHT FROM HER WEIGHT POCK­ETS, BUT WHEN THE DI­VE­MAS­TER TURNED HIS BACK TO HELP AN­OTHER GUEST, SHE PUT THE WEIGHTS IN HER BC POCK­ETS.

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