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.
"Everything was black: black mask, black fins. He looked like Darth Vader," David Jones says.
Amidon, owner of A&E Aquatics Dive Center and, later, Underwater Sports, hired Zak as a salesman, taught him to dive, and eventually made him an instructor.
"He showed such a grasp for the sport," Amidon says. "He was very capable, and he learned enough to be a very, very effective instructor. Whatever Zak did, he never did it halfway. He perfected whatever he did, to the point where he became an expert."
Not everything about his young life was ideal, however. During his senior year in high school, Zak's mother succumbed after fighting cancer for more than a year. His 14-year-old sister ran away from home soon after. If it tore him apart, Jones didn't let on. He advised his father to buy a boat and sail the world.
After high school, he attended some community college classes but never graduated. School wasn't his thing. In the dive shop that's where he excelled.
At 18, he became one of the youngest dive instructors in the State of Washington, and that was about the time his father also got certified to dive.
"It was either that or I wouldn't see him," he says. And his son was the kind of guy everybody wanted to see.
Jones had the answer to every question and was willing to spend hours with dive shop customers. But he also earned the nickname "Sea Biscuit," because he was always raring to go.
Diving with Jones was fun, but it was also safe. Divers who knew Jones insist he was meticulous. He had trained other instructors. He certainly knew the dangers.
But he was also a risk taker. Jones had dived subterranean caves, deep wrecks, and other challenging sites all over the world the South Pacific, the Yucatan Peninsula, Alaska's Kodiak Island, the Mediterranean Sea, Belize, the Sea of Cortez, and more. He was part of a dive team that recovered a Boeing B-17 in Labrador, Canada, and had been on 500-foot dives far more challenging than Tenneco Towers.
And like other hardcore types, he was particularly fond of a piece of equipment that allows divers to stay down longer and makes the bubbling undersea adventures of traditional scuba divers like Jacques Cousteau look like swimming in the kiddie pool.
Zak Jones, in other words, was a rebreather man.
There are claims that the rebreather was invented earlier, but the first person who clearly understood what he was doing breathing and rebreathing the same air underwater died after using his device for only 20 minutes.
The year before, in 1771, a British man named John Smeaton had attached an air pump to a diving bell for the first time. But in France, inventor Sieur Freminet took a different approach: Rather than simply expel the air that he would be breathing, he rigged his equipment so that what he exhaled came back into his apparatus.
What Freminet apparently didn't understand, however, is that the air we breathe out and the air we take in have different compositions. Within just a few minutes underwater, Freminet was poisoning himself with his own exhalations. The culprit: carbon dioxide.
On land, the carbon dioxide we exhale is harmless; it dissipates into the air around us and is absorbed by plant life. But in a confined space, without proper ventilation, the carbon dioxide we produce can quickly build up and become toxic.
For Cousteau and his partner Emile Gagnan developing the Aqua-Lung during World War II, there was an easy solution to this problem: Don't rebreathe. Earlier inventors had designed self-contained diving units, and others had developed the crucial on-demand regulator that allowed air to be taken from tanks only when a diver needed it. But Cousteau and Gagnan were the first to combine all the best features in an apparatus that allowed for the kind of unfettered underwater exploration that became associated with the Cousteau name.
To this day, the most popular way of exploring the sea is still based on Cousteau's model: compressed air in tanks worn on the back of the diver, delivered with the use of a regulator that expels exhalations in a cloud of bubbles. How long a diver stays down depends upon how long the supply of air lasts.
Careful dives, however, require slow transitions to deeper water and slow ascents. That time eats into the supply of air. And the bubbles that divers exhale, while useful for expelling carbon dioxide and other unwelcome gases, can scare away undersea life.
Not to mention the precious oxygen those bubbles waste. Although oxygen makes up about 21 percent of air, human lungs make very inefficient use of it. Not only do we exhale carbon dioxide but nearly all of the oxygen we breathe in goes right back out again. And for divers, that means that most of the oxygen they need underwater gets wasted in the bubbles they send to the surface.
For those reasons and more, the concept of rebreathing of reusing the air that comes from the lungs never went away. As early as the 19th Century, inventors were aware that they could reuse the precious oxygen in a diver's apparatus only if they came up with a way to absorb the carbon dioxide in a closed system.
In the 1930s, Italian spear fishermen were having luck with a system that filtered exhalations through soda lime, a caustic, white, powdery substance made from quicklime that had been treated with lye. That technology became popular in World War II with frogmen who wanted to dive without releasing telltale bubbles to betray their location.
Soda lime filters and scrubbers made from a similar compound, lithium hydroxide, have become standard equipment in closed breathing systems ever since such scrubbers keep air breathable in submarines and spaceships, for example, and the military is still the rebreather's best customer. In the past decade, however, commercial rebreathers have grown dramatically in popularity with serious recreational divers.
Except for the lack of bubbles, however, a diver using a rebreather looks essentially the same but with more tanks on his or her back. Carbon dioxide and other toxic gases exhaled in rebreather systems go through a large scrubber canister containing soda lime. After filtration, automatic sensors test the amount of oxygen in the system and add more according to a level the diver sets to match his depth. Pure oxygen is added from one tank, and oxygen combined with other gases called diluent is added from another canister.
In other words, rebreather users today carry a virtual chemical laboratory on their backs and must be mindful of the gases passing through the closed apparatus of tanks and hoses.
As a diver adjusts his depth, it's crucial that he monitor his oxygen level in that bubbleless system. Too much oxygen and he can go into convulsions. Too little and he will lose consciousness. In either case, he's likely to die.
For that reason, divers are very particular about the mix of gases in diluent. One popular combination is called tri-mix, composed of helium, nitrogen, and oxygen, which helps with decompression and allows for deeper and extremely long dives using tri-mix with a rebreather, eight-hour dives are possible.
For serious divers, already the most gear-conscious people on Earth, rebreathers may be the ultimate impulse buy. About 5,000 of the units exist, and new ones can cost $20,000.
And none of them has quite the cachet of the gleaming unit built by a man named Leon Scamahorn.
After a career in the Army's Special Forces as an expert in combat diving, Scamahorn, 42, saw the potential for commercial rebreathers and, in 1998, purchased a company called InnerSpace Systems. Determined to leave his mark on the field, he designed the most rugged and militaristic unit on the market, naming it after a giant prehistoric shark the Megalodon.
"The Meg" weighs 45 to 85 pounds and costs $8,000 to $15,000. Because of its supposed indestructibility, it has developed something of a cult following.
Eight divers, however, have died using Megalodons, and Scamahorn himself says that people should think twice before buying or using them. Three times in one phone conversation, Scamahorn warned, "The rebreather is like a parachute. If you don't pack it right, you die."
One of the Megalodon's admirers was Zak Jones.
On a recent Tuesday night at the Treasure Trove, a Fort Lauderdale bar, Zak Jones' presence is almost palpable, but no one will discuss it with a New Times reporter.
From Hawaii, however, former Pro Dive International employee Shannon Cunningham says that Jones practically used to own the Trove.
"He had almost a Chris Farley comedic presence," she says. "He was always trying to make somebody laugh. Typical Zak would be going to the Trove after work and drinking beers. No matter what the day was like, he'd find humor in it."
On Tuesday the legendary taco night the Trove brims with the salty people of the sea. The deck hands, the divers, the fisherman, the lifeguards, and, as usual, Pro Dive instructors have come to unwind.
They say they wish they could talk to a reporter, because there are rumors going around about Jones' death that they want to correct. They want somebody to get it right. And they say they want to prevent more deaths. But Pro Dive CEO Frank Gernert has forbidden them to talk about the incident. Not even about their affection for Jones.
Gernert has also banned diving with rebreathers from any of his vessels.
He made that announcement to his workers despite the fact that the two experts who examined Jones' Megalodon rebreather after his death found nothing wrong with it.
Jeffrey Bozanic was the first to examine Jones' rebreather, at the request of the medical examiner. Author of Mastering Rebreathers, one of the few books on the subject, Bozanic admits that he was actually not the optimal person to investigate Jones' gear. He has never used a Megalodon, and his impartiality isn't above question: He is friends with just about every rebreather manufacturer in the business.
Still, he's more qualified than most, and Jill Heinerth, a Megalodon user from North Florida, did her own independent evaluation several weeks later.
But there's still something unsettling about an industry so small, specialized, and tightly knit that few qualified, impartial people exist to evaluate equipment after accidents. The military would be ideal, but it simply doesn't have the time.
Military divers and professional underwater researchers have been using rebreathers for years. But most recreational divers are still new to the equipment. And they tend to be the most gung-ho and risk-taking.
"They're the pioneers," Bozanic says. "They're the ones blazing the path for people like you, who may decide they want to try these. This is a place where an average person with minimal investment $20,000 can get involved. You're part of the front edge of what's happening in the world, and there aren't many places you can do that anymore."
But those pioneers can pay a heavy price for their gusto. Bozanic and other experts say that rebreathers are practically infallible but that accidents occur because divers who consider themselves experts may become complacent about safety since they may feel too experienced to commit a lethal error. Bozanic believes that about 90 percent of rebreather deaths have been chalked up to human error. He admits he has heard of one or two in which the equipment failed, but he can't remember the specifics.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."