Diver Down

Pipin Ferreras and his wife, Audrey, challenged the deadly sea. They lost.

Once the sled hit bottom, Audrey reached up and inflated the lift balloon, which disengaged from the sled and began rocketing her toward the surface along the cable. But the balloon had trouble maintaining momentum. Just five meters from the bottom, it stalled for a full 30 seconds. Bernabe quickly swam to her and tried to add gas from his tank to the balloon. It's not clear if he was successful.

The IAFD later asked Kim McCoy, who works for Ocean Sensors, a company that supplied one of the dive computers, to analyze data collected that day. His report described several things that may have conspired to inhibit Audrey's rise. Among them: The waves caused by the storm appeared to be strong enough to move the new, thinner cable sideways, so her ascent was not absolutely vertical. This movement may have been exacerbated by inadequate weight at the end of the cable, which allowed it to become slack. That looseness apparently caused the balloon apparatus to stall.

As the ascent continued, Audrey suffered more periodic stalls -- none more than two seconds. But those were precious seconds. At 3 minutes and 50 seconds into the dive, she had risen just 51 meters (167 feet) from the bottom. Who knows what level of panic she may have been feeling, but any panic at all surely would have heightened her impulse to breathe.

Audrey dove to 170 meters on October 9, 2002, at the time an unofficial record; three days later, she made her fatal dive. After her death, the IAFD gave Audrey's practice dive record status.
Audrey dove to 170 meters on October 9, 2002, at the time an unofficial record; three days later, she made her fatal dive. After her death, the IAFD gave Audrey's practice dive record status.

This is where Audrey passed out, lost her grip on the balloon's handle, and began to sink. It took Bernabe 15 seconds to reach her. Pipin, at the surface in scuba gear, then swam down to meet Bernabe, who couldn't surface any faster without risking his own life. It remains unclear why the safety diver stationed at 90 meters did not meet Bernabe.

Pipin rushed to the surface with his wife's limp body in his arms. Eight minutes and 38 seconds into the dive, they broke the surface. A speedboat waited to rush her to the hospital while support crew trained in CPR and basic life support tried to revive her. Dominican authorities later performed an autopsy and declared her death an accidental drowning.

As details of the fatal dive slowly emerged, experienced free divers and fans alike began to question Pipin and the International Association of Free Divers. When answers were not forthcoming, they began to criticize him. Free-dive Internet sites bristled with conspiracy theories. One former IAFD employee, Ricardo Hernandez, alleged a criminal cover-up. The IAFD hired Miami attorney Joe Geller to sue him for invasion of privacy and defamation. The suit is pending.

In response to the barrage of criticism, Pipin posted his own message on the IAFD's website (www.iafdusa.com). "I'm writing this letter to clear some things that have been mentioned in some e-mail lists. Not Carlos Serra, not the IAFD, not any of the members of the diver's team are responsible for Audrey's accident. The only people responsible are myself, for introducing Audrey to this sport, and Audrey for deciding to practice. We knew the risk we faced when doing extreme dives."

The level of risk Pipin found acceptable, however, was unacceptable to others. "There are a lot of hard questions that have come up regarding the safety procedures of the IAFD," says Kirk Krack, who sits on the board of directors of the respected free-dive organization known as AIDA, the Association for the International Development of Apnea. (Apnea is the temporary cessation of breathing.) AIDA, which is more established than Pipin's IAFD, regulates the vast majority of free-diving competitions worldwide.

Krack, who also heads the Canadian chapter of AIDA, repeats himself for emphasis: "We question some of their safety procedures quite strongly." For instance, AIDA regulations require safety divers every 30 meters, with no gaps as occurred in Audrey's fatal dive. The organization also demands two safety divers at the bottom. In addition, any safety diver stationed below 40 meters must take the precaution of breathing mixed gases.

Krack also is not convinced that Audrey's medical support was adequate. Other than individuals trained in CPR, it's unclear whether advanced life-support equipment was available at the scene. Such equipment would include a defibrillator to restart the heart of a drowning victim and drugs to then stabilize it.

Reports released by the IAFD thus far have not answered such questions. "They still don't address one or two mitigating factors that may have contributed to the accident," Krack says, alluding to the lingering question of why Bernabe handed off Audrey to Pipin instead of to the diver posted at 90 meters, who happened to be breathing air, not mixed gases, as AIDA would have required.

Pipin, lost in his grief, does not want to discuss the controversy. He'd rather talk about Audrey, the woman who managed to break through the armor of his uniquely insular world and touch a man trapped by his obsession.

"She too fell in love with the ocean," he says, as a fog of denial seems to settle over him. "We have the kind of connection so tight, so real. It got to the point I could see inside of her. I know she can see through my eyes. We still are connected. That will never go away."

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