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?

Hartley had little choice. He inflated Jones' buoyancy-compensator vest and sent him on an explosive, 200-foot ascent, which was certain to induce an instantaneous and fatal case of decompression sickness. The gases expanding in Jones' lungs would likely have caused them to rupture, and the nitrogen bubbles in his blood probably would have produced arterial embolisms. If Jones wasn't dead when Hartley got to him, he was at the surface. Those who performed CPR stood no chance.

Or, everything in that scenario is wrong.

Zak, with friend John Schleimann, always demanded the best equipment.
Zak, with friend John Schleimann, always demanded the best equipment.
After his son died, David Jones tattooed "Zak 1975-2005" on his chest.
After his son died, David Jones tattooed "Zak 1975-2005" on his chest.

While it's tempting to conclude that Zak Jones was just another rebreather fanatic who was killed by his own bravado, there's a troubling fact that clouds the entire investigation of his death.

Before his gear was transferred to the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's Office, it was temporarily sent to the Pro Dive International shop, according to a police report prepared by Miami-Dade Police Department Officer Diana Evelyn. After repeated attempts to reach Evelyn, New Times was eventually contacted by Police Department spokesman Bobby Williams, who now says that the report was in error and that Pro Dive never had possession of the equipment.

Experts consulted in the case are concerned that if Pro Dive did have access to Jones' gear, the gross mishandling of the chain of possession in a death investigation seems plain.

In a small and close-knit industry, concern over bad press for expensive equipment presents a temptation that police should never have made a possibility.

For business reasons, blaming a diver for human error is just about the best outcome.

That doesn't sit right with Robert Mester, a Seattle-area marine consultant who dove with Jones on the team that recovered the B-17. Putting down recent rebreather deaths to human error, he says, overlooks problems with the technology itself.

"I have buried three friends who died while using rebreathers," he says, and he suggests that rebreathers provide such a small margin of error that divers may lose consciousness before they are even aware there's a problem.

"The [rebreather] industry as a whole seems ill-financed and very fragmented, with not enough research and development to ensure that rebreathers meet all diving needs under a wide variety of situations and circumstances."

Robyn Jones, Zak's widow, isn't settling for the answers experts have given. Her attorney, Joseph Slama, tells New Times that she is preparing a lawsuit but refuses to disclose anything about it. But sources tell New Times that Pro Dive International will be a defendant. And Pro Dive CEO Gernert, meanwhile, turned down multiple requests for an interview, citing legal concerns.

Winding down after a morning dive, David Jones is at a Deerfield Beach Starbucks with his girlfriend, Kathy Heath, talking about his son, and emotion overtakes him.

Heath and Jones met through Zak — he was her dive instructor. Heath lives in Deerfield Beach and David Jones in Atlanta, but he visits her frequently and almost always dives. In honor of Zak, he's diving more now than he ever has. And since the accident, he's been doing it for free, courtesy of Pro Dive International.

He says it's a small consolation for what he's gone through.

"I'm sure they're feeling it's a courtesy — a 'Let's make it right by his dad.' I don't think there's any ulterior motive," Jones says. "They're just being nice. I'm part of the family."

At the time of his son's death, David Jones was kayaking with his girlfriend on Pine Island, where their cell phones didn't work and the police couldn't find them. He didn't hear about the accident for more than three days.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving when David returned to Fort Lauderdale, he called his son's cell phone. No answer. Then he tried the dive shop. Whoever picked up told him he needed to talk to Frank Gernert.

"I said, uh-oh. Zak got fired," David Jones remembers. He called Gernert, who told him he should call Zak's wife, Robyn. She was the one who broke the news.

"Jesus Christ," he says. "That was the most horrible thing I experienced in my entire life."

Then he recalls how family members judged him for being out of touch in a time of crisis, especially on Thanksgiving. "A lot of people gave me a lot of shit. I said, 'Fuck you,'" he says as the tears come.

He thinks about what finding out earlier would have meant. "It wouldn't have made a bit of difference," he says. He pauses for a minute to collect himself, but he can't. "Thanksgiving will never be the same," he says. "There's nothing to be thankful for."

David Jones eventually tattooed his son's name and birth and death years on his chest in blue ink. He doesn't speak to Robyn much anymore. They had never gotten along very well, and Robyn told him she'd rather not see him. She told him he reminded her too much of Zak, and the resemblance is indeed striking — the same warm, hazel eyes, toothy smile, and chin dimple.

When police interviewed Robyn Jones, she told them she was uneasy whenever her husband used a rebreather and referred to the equipment as "the Black Death."

She declined to participate in this article, but she did say one thing about her dead husband.

"Zak chose to dive with a rebreather."

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