Lessons For Life: Diver Drowns with Full Tank of Air

Illustration of a diver struggling with their gear underwater.

Miko Maciaszek

Minor Issues, Major Consequences
A diver panics and drowns with a tank full of air.

Ann and Bill were really getting into scuba diving. It was everything they had imagined it would be, and more. They were diving at a local quarry, and conditions were good overall. When they reached the platform 60 feet down, Ann noticed Bill was having trouble with his weight belt and moved in to help him out. She didn’t expect it to be a problem. Fighting with the belt and his gear, Bill twisted to one side and knocked Ann’s regulator from her mouth. Things went downhill from there.

The Divers
A new diver, 24-year-old Ann was in good health. She had made 15 dives total, including four from her initial certification seven months earlier. She tried to get to the local quarry every month to keep practicing with her dive buddy, Bill, whom she met in dive class. They had become fast friends, and Ann was happy to have a dive buddy with a similar experience level and interests. They were both excited about dive-travel opportunities and taking additional training. Both divers were using a mixture of rented and personal gear. They were buying pieces as they could afford it.

The Dive
Conditions that morning were comparable to what they had learned in. The water was cool — typical for the end of the dive season — and Ann and Bill were able to wear their normal wetsuits.

They planned to make a fairly typical dive for the quarry. They were going to swim out to a marker buoy on the surface and then descend to a platform 60 feet down. From there, they planned to work their way into shallower water, exploring some of the sunken attractions in the quarry. They had made the same basic dive several times before.

The Accident
When Ann and Bill arrived at the platform, Ann noticed Bill was having trouble with his weight belt. He immediately kneeled on the platform, trying to get things under control. After watching Bill struggle for a minute, Ann moved in close to try to help him out. She was getting cold from sitting still on the platform and wanted to move the dive along.

Bill’s BC was loose and moving out of place as he tried to get his weight belt buckled. Ann approached Bill just as he twisted to the side, slinging his BC around. The sudden movement knocked Ann’s regulator from her mouth. Realizing what had happened, Bill immediately tried to help Ann recover her regulator. In the process of helping her, his weight belt came loose and dropped to the swim platform behind him. Bill immediately began floating toward the surface, and his weight belt was out of reach before he realized it. He began struggling to get back to the bottom, but in the process, Bill lost a fin and his tank came loose from his BC. He ascended all the way to the surface and was unable to descend again. When he realized Ann wasn’t right behind him, he signaled to the shore for help. Two nearby divers responded quickly, but they didn’t find Ann for 15 minutes. When they finally located her, she was unconscious and her regulator was still out of her mouth.

On the surface, the rescuers began resuscitation efforts, but they were unsuccessful. Ann’s autopsy indicated she had drowned.

On the face of it, some might suggest that this dive accident was caused by dive equipment. In reality, the accident was caused by the failure to properly use the equipment and respond to the problem. In the book Scuba Diving Safety, Dan Orr and I quoted Dr. George Harpur, medical director of the Tobermory Hyperbaric Facility in Ontario, Canada. He said, “We are not able to document a single case in which equipment failure directly caused a diver’s death or injury.
It has been the diver’s response to the problem that results in the pathology.”

Every diver has had a problem with a piece of equipment at one time or another. As the saying goes, “If you haven’t had a problem, you aren’t diving enough.” The key to problem management is to respond quickly and calmly, and then move on. Losing control is the key to making a simple problem escalate into a bigger one. Bill was growing frustrated with his weight belt, and probably a little nervous. He was so fixated on his problem that he didn’t see Ann coming toward him. When she tried to help, his jerky movements knocked her regulator from her mouth. At this point, both divers were having problems, but neither problem was insurmountable.
Ann could have moved back, recovered her regulator and then signaled Bill to stop so she could help him. That didn’t happen.

A recurring theme in this column is the human reaction of panic. When panic sets in, so do perceptual narrowing and tunnel vision. This limits your reactions, keeping you from calmly thinking through a problem. Ann and Bill both panicked. Ann failed to recover her regulator (something every diver learns to do), and then failed to make an emergency ascent to the surface. Instead, she simply froze on the bottom and drowned with a mostly full supply of air on her back. Bill panicked when he lost his weight belt, and his efforts to get back down to the bottom grew more and more erratic, causing him to lose a fin and dislodge his tank.

Many divers never practice the emergency skills they learned during their initial training. They don’t review recovering a lost regulator or removing and replacing their weight belts. Both of these basic skills could have saved the dive, allowing both divers to continue on after a brief interruption. It easily could have turned out as something to laugh about later — just a minor blip.

It is possible that Ann and Bill were using unfamiliar equipment, because some of their gear was rented. When that’s the case, it is even more important to take a few minutes at the beginning of the dive to review your equipment — and your buddy’s — to make sure you know where everything is located and how it works.

Ann drowned on the bottom of the quarry, with plenty of air in her scuba tank. Drowning does not always mean the person inhaled large quantities of water; often the drowning victim only inhales a teaspoon of water. This causes the larynx to spasm and close, and that involuntary reaction causes suffocation.

The autopsy didn’t include detailed information on Ann’s lungs, but it is possible that in her panic she inhaled a splash of water and then lost consciousness. If she’d had a laryngospasm, it would have made it almost impossible for her to take a breath.

Lessons For Life
1. Practice emergency skills. Take the time to practice emergency skills regularly. This includes mask removal and replacement and regulator recovery. These basic skills can turn a potential disaster into a minor problem that won’t end a dive.

2. Be familiar with your equipment. Whether you are diving with something new or with rented gear, be familiar with your equipment, and your buddy’s. Know where the weight buckles are, and how to adjust and release them.

3. Take a breath. When a problem arises, stop for a moment and take a breath. Think about how to handle the problem, and then act. It could save your life.

More Lessons For Life:
Diver Panics After Seeing Shark | A Not-So-Smart Night Dive | Fail To Plan, Plan To Fail

Scuba Diving readers know Eric Douglas as the author of “Lessons for Life,” but he’s also an adventure writer whose latest novel, Heart of the Maya, has just been released, the fifth in Douglas’ Mike Scott dive adventure series. Get a taste of the action with “Sharks on Land,” an exclusive Mike Scott short story wherein the protagonist breaks up an illegal shark-finning group in the Bahamas, written just for Scuba Diving’s readers.

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