Rebreathe Deep the Gathering Doom

The day Zak Jones died, a westerly breeze was picking up and sun glittered on the deck of the 60-foot double-decker dive vessel, Pro Diver II. It was the early morning of Thanksgiving Day 2005, and the boat was headed for Tenneco Towers, one of Florida's most popular sites with both divers and fish, an underwater oasis that resulted after several decommissioned oil platforms were sunk off Hallandale Beach in 1985. The skeletal steel structures became a magnet not only for coral and the fish normally attracted to reefs but also for sharks, turtles, and other deep-sea creatures that swim through the towers.

The plan that day was to dive to as much as 200 feet deep — not an outing for beginners. But Jones and the six other dive instructors with him who worked for Pro Dive International, owners of the Pro Diver II, were no rookies. Capt. Stuart Dye steered the vessel over the eastern part of the site, where the deepest diving is done. Jones and the other instructors wriggled into wet suits, checked their gear, and, one by one, plunged into the lapping sea. With the grace that comes with years of diving, they slowly descended toward the man-made reef.

Seven minutes later, Jones and his designated dive buddy, Richard Hartley, were down 194 feet. They exchanged "OK" hand signals and separated to explore. Some time later, another diver, Catherine Baldwin, saw that Jones had speared what looked like a 50-pound grouper. Removing the fish from the shaft of his spear gun, Jones looked satisfied with his catch.

But a few minutes later, something was wrong. Hartley spotted Jones hovering at about 160 feet, the fish gone, and Jones looked listless, like he was staring at the coral. Hartley banged his knife against his tank, trying to get Jones' attention, but there was no response. Then Jones began to sink.

Hartley swam down to him and reached for Jones' buoyancy compensator, an inflatable vest that helps a diver control his depth. Hartley inflated it, and Jones began to rise. When Jones hit the surface, Bradley Cunningham, a diver who had already returned to the boat, jumped into the water and began giving Jones CPR. After Jones was pulled onboard, he was given CPR for another ten to 15 minutes. But Jones was gone.

He was just 30 years old.

In the year since, the death of Zak Jones has been particularly troubling for the nation's dive community. The popular, good-looking, young dive instructor had made hundreds of dives that were at least as difficult and many that were much more treacherous. Conditions that day were good. Jones held more than 25 certifications and was diving with experienced, responsible instructors.

In March of 2006, however, Miami-Dade's deputy chief medical examiner, Emma Lew, found that Jones had died of "human error."

That finding shocked the people who knew Jones. Divers refused to believe it. Writing on Internet forums, diving experts from around the globe expressed skepticism. There had to be more to it. Jones was just too competent to get himself killed. Walt Amidon, a Seattle man who was Jones' first diving instructor, says he can't believe that assessment. "When they say personal error, that's not Zak," Amidon says. "He didn't make a mistake."

After reviewing official reports of the incident and interviewing experts familiar with the gear Jones was using, however, it becomes clear that Jones, the careful, charismatic professional, was indeed taking chances that day, including violating the law. But his death is troubling not only for the risks Jones took. His affinity for a newer kind of equipment, growing in popularity with the most experienced divers, has an entire industry nervous about the scrutiny his death may bring.

It's not at all surprising that Jones was out diving on a holiday. It was his livelihood, but it was also his obsession.

As a child, Jones was fascinated with the idea of breathing underwater. When Zak was 5, his father, David Jones, found him at the bottom of the family pool in Scottsdale, Arizona, with a hose in his mouth and a bucket on his head. When Zak came to the surface, he said, "Dad, do you know how hard it is to suck through a garden hose?"

A few years later, Zak would spend hours in Seattle dive shops, browsing gadgets. At 14, he gave up his catcher's mitt against the wishes of his father and spent his life savings — $100 — on his diver's certification. He flipped pizzas at Papa John's and spent the earnings on dive gear — but only the best. The latest technology and the highest-quality equipment were essential to Zak, and it didn't hurt if it all matched.

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Ashley Harrell
Contact: Ashley Harrell