Rebreathe Deep the Gathering Doom

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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.

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Ashley Harrell
Contact: Ashley Harrell