Rebreathe Deep the Gathering Doom

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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.

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Ashley Harrell
Contact: Ashley Harrell