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?

Another clue appears, at first glance, to be more ominous but may be only an artifact: Jones' other source of oxygen, the canister that carried pure oxygen, was empty when Bozanic inspected it. He says that seems strange, since Jones' dive lasted only 27 minutes, implying that he had begun his dive with almost no oxygen in that tank. Another explanation is that Jones had plenty of oxygen during his dive, but in the three weeks that transpired between the accident and Bozanic's inspection, the tank had slowly leaked away its gas.

More convincing evidence for what actually happened is a residue found in Jones' oxygen sensor pod, which tests the quality of gases in his loop. Bozanic found a powder caked on the interior surfaces that could have been soda lime, residual cleaning solution, or even salt. The powder was swabbed and stored at the medical examiner's office but hasn't been tested.

Heinerth reported that the powder may have produced a taste in Jones' mouth or could have irritated his breathing to the point of making him cough. Although an autopsy didn't find irritation in Jones' lungs, he may have believed he was about to get a "caustic cocktail," the common diver's term for the chemical burns in the mouth and lungs that occur when water gets into the loop and soda lime leaks out of its canister.

Friends say Jones was a comedian, an adventurer, and a great guy to have around, like on an expedition to retrieve a B-17 off the coast of Labrador with friend Gary Shaw Jr.
Friends say Jones was a comedian, an adventurer, and a great guy to have around, like on an expedition to retrieve a B-17 off the coast of Labrador with friend Gary Shaw Jr.
photos courtesy of the Jones family

It's a terrifying prospect, and if the taste in his system caused Jones to believe it was about to happen, he may have decided to bail out before a caustic cocktail burned him.

And when he did, it was time to go to the backup systems. In parachuting terms, Zak's primary had failed, and with the ground rapidly approaching, he needed to pull the emergency chute.

Only Zak Jones, the careful professional, had no emergency backup.

Bozanic can see how it would happen. He says that in more than 1,200 rebreather dives, only two or three times has he needed his emergency backup, known as bailout bottles. That may explain how even the most experienced diver could, over time, become complacent about them.

In theory, the way a diver like Jones assures that he's got backup is to bring a couple of small bottles with breathable gases for different levels on his dive. If he gets into trouble near the surface, he has a bottle with the appropriate oxygen levels for that depth. And if he gets into trouble farther down, he has another bottle with gases for the deeper water.

Each bailout bottle comes with its own regulator — a device, including a mouthpiece, that allows divers to suck out the bottle's contents only as it is needed, then expel an exhalation as bubbles.

One of Jones' bailout bottles contained 77 percent oxygen and could therefore be used only at 30 feet or shallower. On his way down, Jones would have clipped it to a descent line at that depth. Farther down, the bottle would be useless.

The other bottle Jones kept with him, attached to his left side. This one would be his bailout for deeper waters.

But there were two things that made this bottle useless as well. First, it contained 38 percent oxygen and was appropriate only to 100 feet. Jones dove to nearly 200 feet, and if he'd breathed from the bottle at that depth, it would have sent him into convulsions.

But he couldn't have taken a hit off it anyway. It had no regulator, no mouthpiece, and no easy way for him to make any use of it.

It's a stunningly simple mistake for a diver of Jones' experience and safety record. While he was making preparations on the boat and while he was descending, he would have had a difficult time not noticing that his lifesaving device had no regulator. Perhaps, in his typical raring desire to get into the water, Jones had inadvertently picked up the wrong bottle at some point and, when he prepared for the dive, recognized the error but wanted to dive anyway. Divers say this kind of mistake does happen sometimes, but it's practically suicide.

Whatever the case and whatever caused Jones to bail out of his rebreather, when he reached for his bailout bottle, he may have known he was doomed.

By the time Hartley came upon him, Jones had lost the fish, and he began sinking.

An initial news story in the Miami Herald reported from a Coast Guard document that Hartley observed Jones "tangled in his tank lines" and struggling. That led some to wonder if he was convulsing and if Hartley still had time to save his life.

But in a reaction to the Herald piece, Pro Dive CEO Gernert sent a "correction" to Divernet, a dive news website.

"Zak was never noticed struggling or in any distressful manner," Gernert wrote. "However, after he presumably lost consciousness, he descended approximately 47 feet and became entangled in material unrelated to his life support or actual scuba gear."

If that's true, then Hartley had little chance to save Jones. According to a computer dive profile, Jones spent eight minutes sinking, then sitting at the bottom with no regulator in his mouth. After about four minutes, brain damage begins to set in. It's commonly accepted in the dive community that trying to rescue a diver who may be brain-dead already is a bad idea. It's likely to end in a double fatality, as a rescuer risks his own life hurrying to the surface.

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