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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

a strange death

We were working off the deck of an ocean going workboat about 200 ft long in water that was about 175 ft deep. I was a well seasoned tender, maybe 19 at the time. We were diving around the clock and the work for the divers was strenuous and cold. They were digging an underwater trench in the mud to bury a pipeline near an oil production platform in the Gulf of Mexico a few hundred miles offshore. Using firehoses pressurized with salt water fed thru a nozzle to blast out the mud on the sea floor under the pipe, as they dug along under pipeline it would slowly lay into the underwater ditch. The pipes always had to be buried so they couldn't be snagged by anchors and cause a major oil spill.

I was assigned to a diver named John, it was my first job with him, a really nice guy. The word on him though was that he was too old to be doing that type of work. He was 48 and the scuttlebutt among the crew was that he may have been having heart problems. Most of the divers felt he shouldn't be there because of the nature of the job. Many divers seem to retire at about age 40 to 45 anyway because of the extreme working conditions you might encounter on the job. I wasn't really prepared for what was going to happen to him the next day and It was quite disturbing.

It was about 10PM and he was in the water trenching and he was having a very difficult time. I was on the edge of the deck tending his hoses and lifelines and listening to him on the helmet radio. The radio conversation between him and the dive controller was piped over a loudspeaker on deck so we could hear everything that went on while he was working. This saved time as far as relaying all information to the deck crew when he needed surface assistance and it kept us aware of unusual conditions. The man was breathing very heavily, obviously out of shape and struggling with the forces of the firehose. Usually you see 2 maybe 3 men handling the back-pressure of a firehose on land, imagine one man trying to do it alone underwater with poor footing and weighted down with full diving gear!

He started complaining about chest pains over the radio and huffing and puffing so badly the dive controller ended the dive so I pulled him up slowly for decompression. He made his "stops" at regular intervals in the water and we finally got him on deck and got his gear off. He still needed further decompression though and he had to go inside a hyperbaric chamber to be recompressed and then further decompressed to insure there were no air bubbles in his blood to cause the bends. As I was his tender that meant that I would be at the controls of the chamber to ventilate it to remove CO2 and to keep his oxygen fresh and change the pressures of the chamber to do the decompression necessary. I could also talk to him on a radio and see him through a porthole.

a hyperbaric chamber with an airlock

Once inside the chamber he was ok for a few minutes then suddenly started breathing fast and very loudly and yelling "ventilate the chamber" over and over again. I started doing as he requested, letting huge amounts of air in while exhausting huge amounts of air out to circulate the air inside with fresh air. Not an easy task to do while trying to hold the pressure inside at a constant level, but I adjusted the valves as quickly as I could while watching the depth gauge closely. Meanwhile I yelled at someone to go get the dive controller to come over and assist me and see why John kept requesting a total ventilation. I was now using so much air I it was taking down the reserves for the entire shipboard operation, including air for the next diver that was already in the water to replace John on the firehose detail.

It fell silent inside as I was ventilating, only the very loud rush of air going in and out could be heard, almost deafening. I tried to raise John on the radio but he was now silent and I could no longer see him inside the porthole, he had moved in such a way that he was no longer visible. Finally the dive controller arrived and asked me a few questions and then he tried to raise John on the radio and I stopped ventilating for a few minutes so we could hear. No answer, no nothing. The chamber had an airlock and the dive controller climbed in the outer lock and I compressed him in to the same depth as John until he could open the inner door. Once inside he too started to yell ventilate the chamber. I cranked the valves wide open and after a few minutes he yelled over the radio to have someone come help me and to have a dive Doctor on a nearby vessel brought over to help. He would not tell us though what was going on inside. i could barely see inside the porthole because there was so much condensation inside the glass was constantly fogged up.

Finally, the doctor arrived after he was rushed over from a few miles away on a small crew boat and I locked him into the chamber as well after he asked a few questions. Once inside they continued to request plenty of ventilation and I could barely hear what was going inside, and, by now we had a small crowd watching the entire operation and wondering what was going on.

Eventually the dive controller was air-locked out and he said he thought that John was dead and that they had no idea what had happened to him. He left to make a call to inshore operations on what to do next and I was told to stay at it. I stayed on duty for about 17 hours straight manning the controls of that chamber and I was getting quite exhausted by now. There was no one to relieve me on deck because the other diving operations were continued and everyone else was needed on that front. After he made the call he came back out and had us stop venting the chamber and to get the dive doctor out and leave the chamber sealed at depth.

After several hours the Coast Guard showed up along side and they shut down all the operations onboard and sealed all the equipment and took statements from everyone involved, including me. I had to write down every detail of what happened as I recalled it and I was so exhausted I'm sure that I was recalling things in a blur. I was going to regret not recalling certain things 2 yrs later on, but I had no idea at the time. We were ordered to remain on board and to have the vessel put to port while the Coast Guard investigated the situation. We found out that our so called dive doctor was not an actual licensed MD and could not fill out a death certificate or even legally declare the man dead. It would not be till we reached port the next day that an actual doctor would come on and do the declaration. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard decided to impound every single piece of diving equipment in use on board while they completed their investigation which included doing tests on everything that we had used.

The MD that came onboard declared death by natural causes of a heart attack, pending the results of the Coast Guard testing and investigation to insure that he wasn't carbon dioxide poisoned or death by other unnatural means. I was finally allowed to leave the scene and I went home that day.

Next up, the lawsuit...