Panic Leads to Diver Fatality

AS A WILDLIFE OFFICER, I spend countless hours on the water. As an instructor for the National Association of Underwater Instructors (NAUI), I have also spent a lot of time teaching and diving. One summer day while patrol boating on a large lake, I noticed a group gearing up for a boat dive at a deeper part, around 80 feet. I eased over to them to inquire about their dive. 

The four divers were planning to practice search-and-rescue techniques. They all had similar gear: drysuits, full-face masks, and aluminum 80s with pony bottles attached. The group was testing their communications, and all seemed well, so I told them we would be nearby if they needed anything. Two divers descended, one stayed on the surface as a safety diver, and the fourth stayed on the boat as the dive tender. 

My partner and I returned to our duties. When we returned to the vicinity, I could hear the boat’s comms unit speaker across the lake’s surface, and the two divers were calling out air pressures as they ascended. One of them was at 80 feet and 500 pounds per square inch (psi). I did some quick math in my head and realized something bad was going to happen — he did not have enough air to make a safe ascent, let alone complete a safety stop. I immediately had my partner take us safely but directly toward their vessel. 

Divers need to practice air-sharing techniques and using redundant breathing-gas systems so they become second nature. In this incident, a diver tried to give his alternate air source to another diver, who panicked and grabbed the first diver’s face mask, ripped it off his head, and attempted to use it. © STEPHEN FRINK

Within a minute after we pulled up next to their boat, a single diver came rushing to the surface without his face mask, frantically yelling that his buddy needed help. The safety diver immediately descended to locate and help the diver still at depth. Panic immediately set in with the group at the surface. The tender was trying to get the first diver on the boat, but the diver couldn’t catch his breath or control himself and did not want to get out of the water and leave his buddy under the surface.

I jumped on their boat to assist the tender while my partner backed our boat away and radioed for more help. Once we got the first diver onto the boat, he told us that the second diver had run out of air during their ascent. The first diver tried to give his alternate air source to the second diver, but he wouldn’t take it. Instead, the second diver panicked and grabbed for the first diver’s face mask, ripped it off his head, and attempted to use it. They were approximately halfway to the surface. The first diver couldn’t see or breathe with his mask off, so he bolted to the surface as the second diver sank back to the bottom. 

The situation immediately worsened. As the first diver finished explaining what had happened, the safety diver violently broke the lake’s surface away from the boat without his face mask and with a look of absolute terror. He was visibly having trouble catching his breath and had also bolted to the surface from depth. 

My partner immediately pulled our patrol boat up to the safety diver, hauled him out of the water, and quickly brought him back to us. As we attempted to calm the panicked group and take stock of the situation, a local fire vessel arrived and had emergency oxygen with them. I quickly gave both divers oxygen. Without knowing if either had sustained any dive-related injuries, I knew from my training that getting them on oxygen was the best course of action. 

We had two possibly injured divers receiving immediate assistance and one missing diver. It became apparent that the situation would become a recovery dive, not a rescue. We marked our location, and more help arrived on the scene. Medical personnel airlifted the two divers to the closest trauma center. I later learned that the first diver had no serious injuries and made a full recovery, but the safety diver had water in his lungs and a long recovery ahead of him. He had located the second diver motionless on the bottom but suffered an issue with his face mask that caused it to flood, and then he knocked it off his own face in a panic and bolted for the surface. 

Unfortunately, by the time the local rescue dive team got there, they had to make the call to wait until the next morning to recover the second diver. The water was deep, with three thermoclines and almost no visibility at depth. The local rescue team made a dive the next morning and recovered the second diver from the bottom. 

It was a somber event, as we discovered the second diver had not attempted to use his pony bottle. In his panic, the second diver went for the most quickly available option — his buddy’s face mask. He was also overweighted for his gear configuration and body composition, which made him sink to the bottom and drown in his attempt to follow his buddy to the surface. 

This incident was tragic but should have been avoidable. Both the first diver and safety diver panicked and nearly drowned in the process. They both were at risk for decompression sickness or an arterial gas embolism due to their rapid, uncontrolled ascents, but fortunately that did not occur. 

The rapid emergency response that included emergency oxygen was important, and both divers were fortunate to have this timely intervention. The second diver did not adequately manage his gas consumption and panicked when he ran out of air, going for his buddy’s full-face mask instead of his own full pony bottle. 

This incident shows the importance of understanding our air consumption rates and planning our dives with them in mind. Divers need to practice air-sharing techniques and using redundant breathing-gas systems to the point that they are second nature. And everyone involved in a dive must be familiar with emergency procedures and have an emergency action plan in place so they know what to do if anything goes wrong. 

Panic truly is the vulture that sits on our shoulder, and we must not give it anything to feed on. Practice and planning may not stop an incident from happening, but they can help us avoid panic and prevent a dangerous situation from becoming fatal. AD

© Alert Diver — Q3 2023