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Report: Coast Guard Arctic Diver Died of Trauma to the Lungs; Rapid Ascent Suspected

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SEATTLE, Washington -- One of the two Coast Guard divers who perished in the Arctic last summer died of trauma to the lungs — a condition caused by rapid ascent — and possibly had dived deeper than planned, her father said Tuesday.

William Hill Jr., of St. Augustine, Fla., told The Associated Press that he finally received the autopsy report for his daughter, Lt. Jessica Hill, two weeks ago, but couldn`t bear to open it for several days.

"It was pulmonary barotrauma — trauma to the lungs — that was the immediate cause of death," Hill said. "There was speculation they were much deeper than they should have been, but why that happened I don`t know. The official report will go into much more detail about that."

Pulmonary barotrauma is caused by the rapid expansion of air held in the lungs, which can occur during ascents as pressure outside the body decreases. The family of Hill's diving partner, Boatswain's Mate Steven Duque, could not immediately be reached to confirm whether that was also the cause of his death.

The two died Aug. 17 about 500 miles north of Alaska, and the results of two Coast Guard investigations into the matter are not expected to be released until next year. A spokesman for the Coast Guard said Tuesday the agency was not releasing any information on the autopsy.

Hill, 31, and Duque, 22, of Miami, were shipmates on the Seattle-based icebreaker Healy, which was sailing through the region 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.

During a break in operations, she and Duque slipped into a small patch of open water near the Healy`s bow to conduct a cold-water training dive. They were tethered to the surface by ropes, lest they become disoriented under the ice, and were monitored by a support team.

Their dive plan called for them to descend 20 feet, Hill`s father said. Duque had never before gone diving in the Arctic, and only had been in a dry suit once before — while at the Coast Guard dive school in Panama City, Fla., he said.

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