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Autopsy: Coast Guard Divers Suffered 'Uncontrolled Descent' to 189 Feet and Suffocated
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SEATTLE, Washington -- One of two Coast Guard divers who mysteriously perished during a training dive in the Arctic last summer plunged toward the ocean floor in an uncontrolled descent, suffocated and developed lung trauma during a rapid rise to the surface, according to an autopsy report summary obtained by The Associated Press on Tuesday.

And by the time the two divers from the icebreaker Healy had been pulled up, "one diver's (air) tank was completely empty and the other diver's tank contained 90 psi (pounds per square inch)" _ the latter typically not sufficient to deliver air through the breathing regulator, the report said.

The report was provided to the AP by William Hill Jr., of St. Augustine, Fla., the father of Coast Guard Lt. Jessica Hill, who died along with Boatswain's Mate Steven Duque on Aug. 17, 500 miles north of Alaska.

The Coast Guard has released little information about the deaths but relieved the Healy's commander, citing a loss of confidence in his ability. A spokesman said the Coast Guard would not discuss the autopsy report pending the outcome of its investigations, expected next year.

Hill, 31, and Duque, 22, had slipped into a patch of open water near the ship's bow and were planning to dive to a maximum depth of 20 feet, William Hill said. A support team held ropes attached to them lest they become disoriented under the ice.

The autopsy report summary, written by Armed Forces Regional Medical Examiner Stanley D. Adams, said Hill suffered "an uncontrolled descent to a possible depth of 189 feet." Her father said that if in fact she went that deep, he didn't understand how the dive support team could have failed to prevent it.

"Why in the hell did they let out that much rope?" he asked. "It was only scheduled for 20 feet." Furthermore, he said, the amount of air in the divers' tanks would have lasted a half hour at 20 feet, but only 10 minutes at 180.

The dive support team reportedly pulled the divers to the surface after becoming concerned; attempts to resuscitate the two failed.

The autopsy ruled Hill's death an accident. The cause was asphyxia (a lack of oxygen or buildup of carbon dioxide in the body) with pulmonary barotrauma (an expansion of air in the lungs as pressure decreases during ascents) and possible air embolism (air bubbles in the blood). Duque's family could not immediately be reached to confirm whether he died of the same causes.

"It is quite likely the divers lost consciousness prior to or during the ascent," Adams wrote.

He added that his findings must be squared with investigations into the state of the divers' equipment and into the circumstances of the dive.

The autopsy summary also noted that a third diver planned to take part, but "immediately aborted the dive" for reasons that are not mentioned.

The Healy was sailing through the Arctic with about 35 scientists to collect data that would help them map the ocean floor. Hill was the ship's dive officer, as well as the liaison between the scientists and the crew.

Shortly after the tragedy, the Healy's commander, Capt. Douglas G. Russell, was relieved of duty and reassigned to administrative tasks; his superiors cited "a loss of confidence in Russell's continued ability to command." Capt. Tedric R. Lindstrom is the new commanding officer. Hill said he plans to ask an independent pathologist to review the autopsy results.

His daughter's birthday was Monday.

"Right now, I'm just waiting to get the Christmas holidays over and wait for the new year," he said. "Then I can expect the next report."

Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of UnderwaterTimes.com, its staff or its advertisers.

Reader Comments

15 people have commented so far. cloud add your comment

There is more to the story than we are being told. If the force that pulled one diver down almost 200 feet, quickly, prevented the safely-line people from extracting the divers, could that force be a USO? Or, was the Coast Guard part of some magnetic force experiment? It would seem about impossible for either diver to exert enough inertia to "over-power" the safety line attendants. Also, water is about 7 or 8 times denser than air; thus, how could a human get to the 200 foot depth so quickly? It seems to me that another unidentified force is involved in this tragedy. Something is certainly going on that the public is not being told. God Bless Our service men and women.
   comment# 1   - Ben Mocini · Grand Rapids, Mi, USA · Nov 22, 2006 @ 9:01pm

I agree with Ben. There is more to this story than is being told. Two divers tied to a safety line would not be able to pull out 200' of line unless someone topside failed to do their job. The key phrase is "Planed dive to 20 feet". I have made a number of ice dives and have experienced an unwanted emergency retrieve. My dive partner and I were powerless trying to stop our surface crew during the retrieve. It will be interesting to see the final report on this matter.
   comment# 2   - Randy G. · Menomonee Falls, WI, USA · Nov 23, 2006 @ 10:29am

The normal controlled scuba descent of about a foot per minute can be easily tripled with improper weighting or absence of bouyancy. Spacial confusion caused by a free-flowing stuck or frozen regulator coupled with negative bouyancy could have taken them to 190 feet in less than 60 seconds. The topside crew may not have appreciated the disctinction between vertical and lateral line pull. These folks were clearly experts, but extreme cold water is disconcerting and it would be very difficult for a single diver to arrest an uncontrolled descent by another, and he would not have left her. Under exertion in a panic condition in cold water it would be easy to suck a tank dry in minutes, especially in a regulator free flow situation. If I took my guess though I'd almost say inattention caused by experience and apprehension put one of them in the water with an empty tank. Seen it happen to real pros. Would take multiple simultanreous problems above and below to cause this.
   comment# 3   - Rich · Coeur d'Alene Idaho · Nov 23, 2006 @ 3:07pm

Normal rate of decent to this level is 30m per minute. An uncontrolled rate of decent could have led to the divers into rapid breathing that causes a build up of CO2 in the body which is a precurser to severe Narcosis. However diving below depths of 56meters on air (21% O2)exceeding 1.4 o2pp most likely cause a CNS hit followed by convulsions the caused the divers to spit out their reg and drowned long before the hit the surface. I would suspect that the total story is not here as these were highly trained divers in the Coast Guard. Thir dives are always well planned, equipment checked, with gas volumes to include rule of 1/3rds, and highly trained surface support. In addition they most likely were using a full face mask with verbal communication.
   comment# 4   - Tom Kielty · Pattaya, Thailand · Nov 24, 2006 @ 1:56am

I too agree with Ben; something quite possibly may have pulled these two divers to their deaths. I doubt that whales go that far north? and I have my doubts concerning an underwater polar bear gone amok. It had to be an underwater maelstrom or whirlpool anomaly that dragged these two professional divers to their deaths. Item: If both divers were near the north magnetic pole when this transpired; just a thought!!?? If their deaths can't be explained--then you must think out of the box in cases like this....
   comment# 5   - Roger M. Angress · Bakersfield, Calif./Kern county · Nov 24, 2006 @ 3:07am

In Australia, the news was reported as 1)VERY Rapid descent 2)Held at depth for some time against the strength of the diving tenders 3) Finally 'released' and 4) no evidence of a decompression stop. 5) brought to the surface slower than what they went down. All this reported days ago before the US networks did! Ben suggested a USO, I would suggest that one of the few things able to rapidly ascend then descend, by not using a gas filled swim bladder, and grab prey then descend rapidly, and use aggressive hunting techniques while also living at the depth and location described, could be the Cephalopods form Family Architeuthidae Genus Architeuthis (Giant Squid). Notwithstanding, possibly the Atlantic giant squid or even the Colossal or Humboldt. Certainly the description of what happened could fit an attack from these species, but nonetheless it seems that full reporting of this event has not occured. Perhaps more pressure by people to ascertain all the facts may solve this puzzle
   comment# 6   - Colin McPherson · Nguiu, Bathurst Island, N.T. Australia. · Nov 29, 2006 @ 9:42pm

In the December "National Geographic" magazine, geography section, would the nearby magnetic north pole have "sucked" the divers to their death?
   comment# 7   - RICHARD E DIETER · AURORA · Nov 30, 2006 @ 6:35pm

As a commercial diver of twenty+ years of exp it is a wonder why anybody would want to use scuba in such an environment! SCUBA is dangerous, there is only one line on the diver and a tender might not know how to hold the line, what is pull from the diver and what is pull down. A current might have taken them down, or too much weight but the dry suit and the bc would counter that. The water is so cold that any exp to it would cause serious problems, regulators freeze more often on the surface than in the water. The USCG divers are not trained to use surface demand equipment and sub contract it out, their divers are limited to shallow depth. It sounds to me as if they and the crew bit off a little more than they could chew. Prayers and condolences to the divers family, it is a sad thing all around.....
   comment# 8   - richard kennedy · woodbourne · Dec 5, 2006 @ 5:06pm

I suspect that these two divers were dragged under to their deaths by a giant squid or a pack of giant squids.
   comment# 9   - STEVEN SAUNDERS · PERTH, Australia · Dec 10, 2006 @ 10:30pm

It could have been any thing, but very suspicious at the most. I hope it was giant squid and not something beyond our imagination. It's a very sad thing to hear about but our thoughts and wishes to the family.
   comment# 10   - Kevin Reynolds · Hiawassee Ga USA · Dec 11, 2006 @ 3:42pm

Come on now.. CONSPIRACY??????? First of all, This type of situations sucks. No one should ever have to go through this, and to the families, my deepest condolences... This was a tragic accident, and the report will come out. The USCG did not and does not "bite off more than it can chew" The USCG holds all of its divers to thehighest standards. every man and woman goes through NAVY Dive School. and only then upon successful completion can they wear the pin of a Diver and acctually dive and come on "GIANT SQUIDS" what are you twelve? I have the up most respect for those guys and gals that are out their doing this mission. not just anyone can do this, and hey guess what? When your 500 NM north of AK, what are you going to be able to just call out a contract diver to do a job? This was a training mission, and the key word is Training. mistakes do happen ladies and gentlemen, we are human and by our nature we are bound to make mistakes. But heck yeah this situation
   comment# 11   - Jeremy · WI · Dec 15, 2006 @ 3:37pm

We share this planet with other groups, that some refer to as the "High level powers." On the surface our scientific elite have proven themselves deadly to the human race by their plans to exterminate humanity with an all out nuclear war. These high level powers have revoked the authority of our nuclear armed enemy Fiend class. We can only speculate of course, yet, if our scientific Fiend elite travel into Arctic waters, they usually carry on with their demented, depraved destructive behaviors. The high level powers make themselves known, and anyone with any sense at all, will never undertake a task that would be menacing or injurious to the high level powers. These high level powers have the ability to read a persons thoughts to determine "Intent of Mind." If we enter an area in peace, we most likely will not be subject to harsh handling. Our Fiend elites have genocide in their hearts and Minds, and have decided to kill us all.
   comment# 12   - Pat Sullivan · Des Moines, usa · Mar 9, 2007 @ 1:31pm

Rich · Coeur d'Alene Idaho · Nov 23, 2006 @ 3:07pm apparently was the most on target, see the report on decostop.com. Overweighted, faulty equipment, inexperienced tenders, a SINGLE tank, lack of proper approval, the list goes on and on and on about what went wrong on this dive. In the Artic? C'mon, far more precautions should have been taken. She really screwed up, got pretty careless, poor baby...I know they suffered horribly.
   comment# 13   - Deb · Philadelphia, PA · Jun 27, 2007 @ 1:19pm

Tom Kielty in Thailand, were you on the USS Epperson with my husband Dan? Dan is now 57..just for a reference point for you . Please let me know one way or the other. Thanks pharris346 at sbcglobal.net
   comment# 14   - pam harris · granbury texas usa · Feb 13, 2008 @ 9:43am

Divers carry depth gauges , they can jettison weight, they did not volunteer to go down to 200 feet. the only thing thats makes since is they were pulled down, but by what?
   comment# 15   - robert · miami,fl USA · Aug 1, 2011 @ 12:51pm
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