The Heroic – But Failed – Rescue

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Written by Al Hornsby

What do the following scenarios have in common?

  1. A certified diver surfaces near shore, gets swept onto rocks by the swell and spends several minutes submerged, regulator out of his mouth. The dive guide risks his life to reach the diver and tow him back to the boat. The deckhand quickly begins CPR and continues until reaching the marina, just minutes away. Unfortunately, the diver does not regain consciousness.
  2. A certified diver suffers a catastrophic injury at more than 30 metres/100 feet and becomes unresponsive. A nearby divemaster spots the incident and attempts to bring the heavily weighted, incapacitated diver to the surface, fighting a heavy swell and strong current. Reaching exhaustion, the buoyant divemaster loses contact with the victim before reaching the surface. The victim is found on the bottom deceased after a subsequent search.
  3. An instructor is asked by three certified divers to take them on a popular local dive. After non-eventful familiarization dives to confirm their skills, the instructor takes them on the requested dive. During the dive, at about 21 metres/70 feet, one of the divers indicates a regulator problem and begins rapidly heading to the surface. The instructor rushes to assist, slows the ascent and gets the diver up safely, then sorts out the regulator problem (which turns out to be imagined). The two other buddies, however, stay down and continue the dive. As the instructor takes the diver back down, the others pass them ascending rapidly with one completely out of gas. Upon reaching the surface, the out-of-gas diver begins to cough and panic. The instructor, who surfaced with the first diver immediately, manually inflates the victim’s BCD, and he floats high in the rough water, but nonetheless shortly loses consciousness. With a strong current carrying the group, by the time the boat and additional rescuers arrive, the victim has been unresponsive for an extended period. The diver is declared dead by EMS. The instructor who was attending him and the other divers throughout the several-hour ordeal ends up hospitalized for extreme exhaustion.

In all these (real) scenarios, there are various commonalities:

  1. The difference between what would/could have been a heroic rescue, at significant personal risk to the dive pro, and the diver fatality was heartbreakingly small.
  2. In the three situations, some combination of various errors and/or omissions could be alleged: an improper briefing/warning; improper rescue technique; improper rescue breaths; lack of available O2; etc.
  3. In addition to those common aspects, all three situations also resulted in the dive pro being sued, and all the cases resulted in negative verdicts or out‑of‑court settlements.

These, like any serious dive accident, were tragedies – for the victims, for the victims’ families and for the dive pros involved. Unfortunately in each, otherwise excellent, conscientious behavior and dive supervision had – or could be alleged to have had – small discrepancies that could be used in a lawsuit to attack the pros’ performance and/or response to the emergency.

Here’s a quick list of rescue-related issues to always stay current on and to use in a dive emergency to maximize the chances of success, but also to reduce the likelihood of a lawsuit that could reasonably allege that your conduct fell below accepted professional standards:

  1. Always provide a proper dive briefing, describing emergency and diver separation procedures and any special risks of the dive.
  2. Have operational, emergency O2 available, with all dive pros and applicable boat crew knowing where it is located and how to administer it, as well as being familiar with the dive boat/operation’s overall emergency plan and procedures.
  3. Stay current on and use the inwater, rescue-breath protocols you’ve learned, including when to give breaths, how frequently, when to remove the victim’s equipment, etc.
  4. Stay current on and use proper CPR protocols, including the sequencing and pace of inflations and compressions. Keep in mind that these processes have standards placed by dive and lifeguarding bodies, plus are supported by medical research and/or consensus of various sorts. These standards are mostly global, but there are a few that differ somewhat by region, so be aware of what is expected in your area. There are plenty of “experts” out there willing to allege that a nonstandard approach led to, or contributed to, a fatality: “If not but for the nonstandard, improper performance. . .”

Unfortunately, diving has risks that can never be fully eliminated, and the possibility of an incident occurring always exists. Stay prepared and vigilant, and ready to respond, using the procedures and protocols learned during your training. There will always be incidents that don’t have happy outcomes despite heroic, appropriate, individual efforts by dive professionals who do everything “by the book.” But even with real, human limitations, realize that diver rescues and assists occur every day, and the vast majority end without serious injury to the victim. Be and stay prepared for diver emergencies, but also be confident. What you know to do works and usually makes a difference.

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