Lt. Jessica Hill, 31, of St. Augustine, Fla., and Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Steven Duque, 22, of Miami, decided to make an impromptu training dive near the bow of the 420-ft. ship. Both were Navy trained, and considered seasoned divers. However, this would be their first cold-water descent using scuba gear. As the ship’s diving officer, Hill was charged with supervising the dive plan and all personnel involved. This included a third diver, who briefly floated in the 29 F water before climbing out, shivering inside a leaky suit.
Unlike a porous wet suit, a dry suit acts as a barrier between the body and the water, helping the diver withstand freezing-cold temperatures. Air inside the suit affects the diver’s buoyancy. It compresses as pressure increases with depth, reducing buoyancy, and expands as the pressure decreases again near the surface. In order to avoid ascending too quickly, divers often carry extra weight. Hill and Duque each loaded up with an additional 62 pounds.
At 5:45 pm, Hill asked three of her shipmates to serve as diver tenders for the operation. She briefed them on safety protocols and informed them that the maximum depth of each of the two 20-minute dives would be 20 ft.
Three minutes into the training session, Duque’s safety line began to play out quickly. “I had the impression he was swimming away from me sideways under the ice,” Duque’s linesman later told investigators. Within seconds, Hill’s line began to do the same. The third diver returned to the scene 20 minutes later and noticed that too much line had been spent. He ordered the dive support team to “haul ’em up.” Though other bystanders joined the effort, it took three more minutes to bring Duque and Hill to the surface. EMTs worked for more than an hour to revive them, but it was too late.
Capt. Douglas Wisniewski, who oversees Coast Guard diving operations, spent months analyzing what happened that day. Mistakes had been made at every level of command. The Coast Guard hadn’t checked the scuba equipment in the Healy’s dive locker in five years, nor had it posted a more experienced dive master on board to oversee operations and properly train the dive personnel. (Hill had only 24 dives in her career.) Capt. Russell should never have authorized a dive during a party and without a standby diver. He also should have checked Hill’s dive plan with the Coast Guard Diving Manual, as procedure required. Finally, Hill’s dive plan did not include adequate safety procedures, or sufficient training for the support team.
Wisniewski was unable to determine conclusively why the divers carried such an unusually heavy load (more than twice the recommended amount), and why they failed to drop that weight when they began to descend uncontrollably. Against Coast Guard rules, some of the lead weight had been stashed in zippered compartments, which would have made it difficult to release. The divers also likely succumbed to nitrogen narcosis, a sense of drunkenness resulting from the body’s increased absorption of nitrogen, under pressure.
The real culprit, however, was inexperience. “Hill and Duque simply didn’t have enough dives under their belt,” Wisniewski says. As a result, the Coast Guard is expanding its diver training program: creating new predive checklists, increasing the frequency of dive inspections and examining how to rotate its most experienced divers throughout the fleet. New policies for equipment maintenance and command oversight are also under review.
Dec 12 – 08 – The Coast Guard Responds
Wisniewski believes the most important lesson to be gleaned from this tragedy is to follow the rules: “Those procedures were written in somebody’s blood.” And sadly, so are the new ones.
Hill prepares for the ill-fated dive (left), while Duque (right) jokes with shipmates moments before jumping into the frigid Arctic waters.