Diving Fatality in a Submarine

Diving Fatality in a Submarine

by Greg Paul

Thanks to Australian Police Journal for allowing us to reprint this article.

In the last issue we told of Julia and Greg Alexander’s dive into the hull of the J2 submarine (known as the ‘Broken Sub’) outside the Phillip Bay heads in Victoria, Australia. Julia and Paul became separated inside the hull of the submarine over 40 metres down (135 feet). Greg faced a heart wrenching dilemma. He was way over bottom time, critically short of air, and 40 metres from the surface. Did Julia get out? If he continued searching inside the sub he would risk certain death.

Greg made a rapid ascent to the surface. His dive computer later showed that he had missed 27 minutes of decompression stoppages. Nitrogen had accumulated to dangerous levels, and his body had rapidly decompressed. He was in dire need of help. As the other divers eventually surfaced Greg frantically told them what had occurred. It was clear that Julia had not surfaced and was probably still inside the submarine. Time was critical. She would either be on the verge of running out of air, or had already run out. For a chance of saving her life, however slim, it was a now or never situation.

Two divers faced the perilous conditions in a desperate attempt to find Julia. Paul Dickens was a 41 year old very experienced diving instructor, cave diver and penetration wreck diving instructor. Alan Hamilton was a 44 year old ex-policeman with 20 years diving experience. They had both just surfaced, and had residual nitrogen in their systems. They were low on air, using cylinders that had been used on the previous dive. They knew it was extremely dangerous to go back to the sub so soon, but felt that somebody had to try and find her – before it was too late. Ironically, on their own dives, Paul and Alan had not let their dive buddies or themselves enter the sub. They considered it too dangerous.

As the two men dived back to the wreck, the others on board began a surface search. Oxygen supplies were made ready. The dive master radioed for assistance. Sorrento Police were notified who contacted the Rescue Coordination Centre at the Water Police Office in St Kilda.

Paul and Alan arrived separately at the submarine. Alan concentrated on the stern, peering into holes in the hull, looking for bubbles. Before long he ran out of air. He made it back to the shot line where he started breathing from a very small pony bottle (a cylinder holding a small amount of emergency air) that he had borrowed from another diver. He then climbed the shot line hand over hand, trying to remain calm and resisting panic. The pony bottle ran out of air 20 metres (68 feet) from the surface. Fortunately, as he swam for his life, he came upon the hang tank, which was suspended on the shot line for emergency decompression nine metres from the surface. Alan remained with the hang tank below the surface, squeezing in as much decompression time as possible before he resurfaced. Even so, he needed medical attention and urgent recompression. He was given 100% oxygen and water to ease his decompression illness.

Paul was still at the submarine. The last place Greg had seen Julia was about three metres from the ‘break’, inside the bow section. Paul swam into the bow section where visibility was virtually nil due to the silt suspended in the water. He swam about 15 metres into the hull from the break and then headed towards a light, which turned out to be a small opening. This was probably his only chance to get out before he ran out of air. He squeezed through the opening and continued along the top of the sub toward the bow, looking for bubbles, or anything to suggest that Julia was still alive. He found nothing.

Paul didn’t have enough air to get back to the shot line to make his ascent, so he made a gradual mid water ascent. When he got to around eight metres, he hoped to be able to stop to decompress but his breathing became difficult and intermittent. He breathed slowly and ascended to three metres, where his air supply was finally exhausted. He remained there, holding his breath for about a minute before being forced to surface. On the boat he was also given oxygen and water. The rescue attempt had failed, and by this time, Julia would certainly have run out of air.

The charter boat returned to Queenscliff. Greg and Alan were flown by air ambulance helicopter to the Alfred Hospital Hyperbaric Unit where they underwent recompression treatment for several hours. Alan would undergo 10 such treatments in the following weeks. Paul was taken by road ambulance to Geelong Hospital where he was later cleared to go home. He remains a paradox in hyperbaric medicine, because he didn’t exhibit any signs of decompression illness.

Search and Rescue Squad Response

Water Police and Air Wing units were immediately despatched and several other organisations became involved in the surface search. The Victorian Police Search and Rescue Squad went directly to the are. Members of the Search and Rescue Squad are commercially qualified. Category two and three divers are authorised to dive to 30 and 50 metres respectively. The Search and Rescue Squad is an approved commercial diver training establishment and is equipped with diving helmets, umbilicals, panel and Duocom recompression chamber, transportable to deep diving sites.

This equipment was assembled and taken to Queenscliff to conduct a search for Julia’s body in the submarine. A deep water search inside a confined area could only be safely undertaken with surface-supplied breathing apparatus. This gives the diver a potentially unlimited amount of air supplied from the surface, in the event of a problem.

The weather had deteriorated and there were strong winds with two to three metre waves. A decision was made to adjourn the underwater search until the following day, when a vessel capable of remaining stationary above the site was available.

Meanwhile, the crew and divers were interviewed at the Queenscliff Police Station. Senior Constable Peter Sellers compiled the inquest brief. All of the dive equipment, bottom timers and dive computers were collected for later examination.

At 8.30 pm I spoke with Greg as he emerged from the recompression chamber at the Alfred Hospital. Absolutely depressed, he had a description of the circumstances of how his wife went missing. He drew a basic diagram of the submarine and showed me where he had last seen Julia.

Search and Recovery

Early on the morning of 11 January a dive crew of eight members from the Search and Rescue Squad headed for Queenscliff. They loaded and checked a large amount of equipment, including the portable recompression chamber, onto the chartered vessel Shearwater, then headed out to the location of the J2.

Anchored above the wreck, Senior Constables Don McConnell and Adrian Johnson did a short reconnaissance dive to establish the location of the submarine and its break; the starting point for an internal search of the hull. The weather conditions deteriorated as the day progressed with waves up to three and four metres high and wind gushing to 85 km. With potentially life threatening diving conditions, concentration had to be focused on the specific tasks each member had to do.

Sergeant Barry Gibson and Senior Constable Bob Manks were category three commercial divers with many years experience with the squad. They were the next divers to enter the water. With the weather getting worse, we all knew that this would be our last dive that day. Bottom time limitations added to the pressure of locating the body fast.

As Manks swam along the narrow corridor, he tried not to think about the rough sea above. If the Shearwater dragged its anchors he would be pulled through the hull. The jagged snags on the inside of the sub would certainly injure him.

Manks made his way to the bow of the submarine where he located the body of Julia. She was face down on the bottom, 35 metres from the break. It appeared that she had swum away from the break until she came to the other end of the submarine where she ran out of air. All the diving equipment she was wearing was still intact. In an attempt to reduce the effective weight of the body, Manks tried to inflate the buoyancy vest but was unable to do so because there was no air available in Julia’s tank. The heavy body had to be carried out while bottom time ticked away. Manks looked back towards the break but saw nothing because deadly silt had stirred up and reduced his visibility to zero. He had to concentrate, working through the intoxicating effects of the nitrogen. Fortunately Manks had his umbilical line to guide him out, unlike Greg and Julia the previous day.

Aided by Gibson who hauled the line, Manks carried the woman’s body through the submarine. He was swimming blind, ever aware of the increasing bottom time. He was already over the limit for a no-decompression dive.

Once outside the submarine Manks and Gibson secured the body at the base of the shot line so that it could be hauled to the surface. Water Police members on board vessel VP16 retrieved the shot line and took the body on board.

After a 24 minute bottom time Gibson and Manks faced 37 minutes of decompression stops before they could safely surface. They hung by their umbilical lines below the stern of the Shearwater as it was tossed violently in the rough seas. Maintaining a stable depth for staged decompression was extremely difficult. They were pulled up and down like tea bags while the nitrogen gradually dissipated from their systems. It was a relief all round when the divers were finally allowed to surface and got back on board the boat. The difficult task was achieved. The emphasis of the operation then swung to investigation mode.

The Investigation

The Victoria Police Search and Rescue Squad has a long history of assisting the coroner with specialist investigative skills and is the responsible authority for diving fatality investigations. The circumstances of a death under water can be extremely varied, with many obscure contributing factors. To determine the cause of a diving fatality, the investigator must have knowledge of the physics, equipment and circumstances relative to diving. Key witnesses need to be interviewed by a person with an understanding of diving. A police diver is in the best position to be involved in a diving fatality investigation, in order to produce a quality brief for the Coroner.

Over the next few weeks much work was done in preparation for the Coronial Inquest. Statements were taken from divers Greg Alexander, Paul Dickens and Alan Hamilton. All of Julia’s equipment was thoroughly tested. The Search and Rescue Squad conducted a series of training dives in the ships’ graveyard. Divers took video footage of the J2 – particularly the break area and the inside of the hull, both undisturbed and silted out. Our divers were able to gain a detailed appreciation of the hazards associated with diving in the submarine.

Many more people will no doubt attempt complicated deep water penetration diving. Realistic safety suggestions for future dives were explored. The level of training required and the type of equipment to be used in this type of diving were thoroughly investigated.

The Inquest

In July 1997 coroner Max Beck presided over the inquest into the death of Julia Alexander. Mr Beck, himself, was a keen sport diver. He had completed many training courses including cave diving and had particular interest investigating this death. With an understanding of the complexities involved, he was in an ideal position to judge the contributing factors, and drove his clerks to frustration with the volume of evidence and material he had collected for the inquest.

At the end of the inquest, the coroner found that the responsibility for contributing to the diving fatality was shared by Julia herself, her dive buddy and the divemaster. There is a Victorian code of practice relating to sport diving, but it is voluntary. Coroner Beck said that if the industry continues self regulation then specific standards need to be agreed upon and implemented by all. The alternative is the introduction of legislation governing recreational diving. Mr Beck suggested a plaque in memory of Julia Alexander be placed on the bow section of the J2, warning divers of the dangerous silt conditions within.

Recorded in Coroner Beck’s finding is the following quote on the efforts of the police divers ‘It is not widely recognised that men of such courage, confidence and specialised skill are part of the Victorian Police. They are to be commended for their endurance, skill and professionalism.’


Members of the Search and Rescue Squad knew that immediate rescue attempts by the civilian divers were acts of bravery. However, the circumstances of this incident had the potential to cause three more deaths, that of Greg Alexander, Alan Hamilton and Paul Dickens. The immediate rescue attempt was not something that should be encouraged.

The Victorian Police Search and Rescue Squad today is well equipped for deep diving operations to 50 metres. The years of training and hard work have now paid off. The vision of having a specialised deep-water diving capability has been achieved.

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