Rebreathe Deep the Gathering Doom

How did a careful, experienced dive instructor find himself 200 feet underwater off Hallandale Beach with no way to survive?

More common are the deaths that can't be explained. Often, rebreathers are flooded or lost during accidents, and with them goes evidence of the cause of the accident.

In 2002, Eric Reich didn't surface from a 300-foot Pompano Beach wreck dive for four days, and when he did, his corpse was missing an arm, a leg, and his rebreather. His death was declared a drowning, but no one can say whether a shark attacked Reich before or after he died or why he drowned. In January of this year, the bodies of a highly respected British dive instructor, Penny Glover, and her companion, Jacques Filippi, were discovered off Porquerolles, a French Island in the Mediterranean. Both were diving on rebreathers and had been missing for more than a month. The cause of their deaths remains elusive.

In the 1990s, four to six people using rebreathers were dying each year, according to Richard Vann, research director of the Diver's Alert Network (DAN), based in Durham, North Carolina. Those numbers were not enough to warrant an industry safety overhaul. But in the past few years, the number of deaths has approximately doubled, Vann says. Then again, there are more people using the equipment, so the increase is not necessarily significant.

Underwater Admiralty Sciences

Still, the industry may not be waiting around for outsiders, such as government agencies, to force them to take a harder look at rebreather safety. Vann made a presentation to manufacturers, training agencies, and other industry experts on November 7 at an annual diving conference not open to the public or the media. But he says the presentation focused on the increase in the number of deaths and what standards could be introduced to ensure that after an accident, equipment examinations are made by qualified, impartial investigators.

In the case of Zak Jones, examinations by Bozanic (who spoke to New Times) and Heinerth (who did not but whose findings can be found in her report of the incident) as well as a police report of the incident and discussions with Scamahorn and others begins to paint a picture of what may have happened last Thanksgiving off the coast of Hallandale Beach.

Divers say that while descending into the depths of Tenneco Towers, it's hard to remember to breathe. The site is that fascinating. The coral-bound oil rigs attract mola molas, giant sunfishes that weave in and out of the derricks alongside schools of jacks and the occasional shark.

With its abundant sea life, it's an ideal place to spearfish, but Zak Jones no doubt knew that he was breaking the law when he plunged into the water wearing a Megalodon system and carrying a spear gun. Spearfishing while diving on a rebreather can be punished with jail time and hefty fines. It's just too easy to prey upon underwater creatures when you aren't bubbling, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

But Jones, the only diver using a rebreather that day, was willing to take a few risks.

On the bottom of the sea, Jones and buddy Richard Hartley — vice president of the Pro Dive training department — parted ways in a common but unsafe move. Hartley told the medical examiner's office that they split off so Jones could spearfish without risk of skewering his friend.

Sometime later, Jones caught the biggest grouper of his life. His father, David Jones, says that the two had speared ten- and 20-pounders on their fishing trips but not a 50-pounder. Jones' adrenaline probably went through the roof as he wrestled with the monster and subdued it.

And it's possible that those exertions put Jones into danger. Breathing faster, Jones might have been dragged deeper by the fish, and that may have affected the level of oxygen in his loop — what rebreather divers call their closed system of gases. His fight with the fish might also have taken his mind off his rebreather's heads-up display, a warning device that flashes green, then yellow and finally red directly into a diver's eyes as oxygen pressures go into dangerous levels.

But Jones' Megalodon showed later that he had set the oxygen levels correctly for his depth — 1.3 bars of pressure — which should have caused the system to add oxygen at a correct rate.

Still, for some reason, nearly 200 feet down, Jones became so concerned about the gases in his rebreather that he decided on a radical action — to bail out of his loop.

Hartley, after seeing Jones with his fish, was away from him again for several minutes. And it was during that time that something went so wrong that Jones became convinced he had to seal his rebreather mouthpiece and cut himself off from its recycling gases.

Why did Jones reject his own equipment? That's what the experts have struggled to understand as they examined his gear.

Bozanic says that one thing in particular about Jones' Megalodon puzzles him: Although the equipment was in working order, the unit's diluent had been shut down.

In other words, one of the two sources of oxygen on Jones' back wasn't available to him. By itself, that isn't fatal or even unusual. Sometimes, divers suppress their diluent to help maintain buoyancy control. But Bozanic wonders if there's a chance Jones' didn't know his diluent was shut off. And when his system began to give him trouble, he didn't realize that by opening the diluent, he might have restored his loop gases to safe levels.

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