Part 1: Dans Disappearance

DEATH AT DEPTH – DISAPPEARING DIVERS

text and pictures by Judy Anne Newton

Dying at depth is something we rarely think about as new divers or casual recreational divers. Somewhere beyond the avid diver level and the professional diver range we begin to witness and experience real-life dramas that make us think more seriously about what we do for a ‘recreational sport.’

For many divers, diving related traumas will be limited to skin bends or a singular run through a hyperbaric chamber. For other divers, the ultimate reality may smack them up side the head one day and change their attitudes forever.


This is Dan’s story.

When you dive with a small resort for a long period of time, the dive staff become an extended family. They share your enthusiasm for the sea and your love of the sport. They are comrades in arms when there are problems and they are compatriots in revelry when things are blissful. That was the way I felt about my little Caribbean home away from home, so it seemed very strange that when I arrived at the airport there was no one there to meet me. I called to announce my arrival and ‘Mama Lorraine’ answered, but her usual effervescence had gone drastically flat.

‘Oh Judy, I am so glad you are here. We have a diver missing.’ She choked before the rest of nightmare unfolded. ‘It’s one of ours. It’s Dan.’

Now Dan is one of those guys that everyone liked to be around and all the ladies loved to be with – handsome, muscular, daringly gorgeous eyes and a real pleasure on a dive or at a disco. The 10-minute taxi ride seemed an eternity as scenarios raced through my head. I had been more interested in getting to the dive centre than getting details over the phone. When the taxi pulled up I could see the dive boat coming up the canal and I was at the dock to help tie off before the engines shut down. Stunned guests quietly gathered gear and headed for rinse tanks. The silence was only shattered by the harshness of the glaring sunlight on the water.

Mark had been the boat captain and top watch on the dive. He was also senior diving instructor for the dive centre and shared a staff apartment with Dan. I am not sure he was even aware I was standing on the dock when he came down from the boat’s bridge in a hurried rush to the office. Air and Sea Rescue was on the way and the boat would turn around to continue search efforts as soon as all the guests were off.

I stood at the doorway listening as Mark gave a hastened report of the incident. Four professional divers, including Dan, had been doing an air only bounce dive on the wall testing dive computers, the only place on the island that didn’t have a shelf at 50 metres. The bottom out on the wall was around 2,000 metres as best guess. At 100 metres all divers had given the ‘all clear to ascend’ signal and each looked to their own gauges to adjust their ascent rate. At 75 metres Dan was gone.

It would be over an hour before the divers could go through their decompression stops and safely surface. Dan had already been missing one-and-a-half hours. Search and rescue training kicked in automatically – reacting with emotion or panic would only compound the developing tragedy.

Other dive operators were contacted and a surface search began over the entire southwest end of the island and extending far down current from the dive site. Air reconnaissance was on the way and the national naval rescue force had cruisers searching out further. After two hours, there was no sign that Dan had ever passed this way.

As is so common in an emotionally frayed moment, people began to recall odd behaviour and comments that morning and just prior to the dive. ‘I left a note’ had been Dan’s parting comments to Mark as he did a backward roll into the water.

A thorough inspection of Dan’s gear and his apartment would reveal a sack lunch but no note. More than mildly interesting, the search of his room would reveal the absence of his passports (dual citizenship), military-issued sidearm, favourite clothes and a winter coat.

Over the next five days, search and rescue efforts turned to recovery as the estranged wife and children, family members and friends began a vigil through the dive shop and Dan’s apartment seeking answers and resolution. Even the favoured girlfriend from Amsterdam caught an overnight flight to stare into the empty sea. Each person that would arrive told a different tale of Dan and by the end of the recovery period, we had a very confused pattern that was emerging somewhere under a murky surface.

Dan was in the military and desired to get into covert operations – like many of his friends already were. Dan had a few enemies – jilted lovers to name a few, some antagonists from a street fight that had turned near lethal and the local police had an interest in speaking with Dan. More alarming were the sinister characters from a drug-deal gone bad where Dan’s buddy had been murdered. The victim’s family was still seeking their own answers to that mystery.

So it came down to a question of accidental drowning or drowning by design – suicide. With the list of the angered and the wronged haunting Dan, he had more than enough reason to want a quick and painless way out. But there was another nagging thought that was running through the diving enclave. Dan was a good diver – a damned good diver. He had friends and connections. It was possible that Dan could have been safely off the island before the first rescue alarm went out.

We calculated the time for decompression, a location for egress, a place for stashing dry gear and a safe place for a waiting buddy – a true covert operation. It was a lengthy swim, but we could all make it without much stress and in less than the time it took for the other divers to surface at the boat. The nagging thought was growing into an ugly suspicion.

We held a memorial service at sea over the site where Dan disappeared and sent messages in weighted jars plus small items of personal value to those who were hurting. We wondered if we were sending them down to the dearly departed or merely down to confused deepwater feeders.

It would be almost a year before Dan’s story surfaced again. The local newspaper ran a very poor image of a man being held in jail in Amsterdam. He refused to give his name, but he was known to be a national from the island. Interpol was asking for anyone who recognized the man in the image to contact authorities immediately.

It had been a year and the man in the picture was huskier, sported a beard and longer hair, which made an altogether convincing disguise – except for the eyes. Several islanders responded to the photo as requested, but that was the last we heard.

Dan’s been gone seven years now. In legal terms, he is dead. For us that were involved in some way on that fateful day, no matter how remotely involved, that is all we can say – Dan’s been gone seven years now. I asked Mark before writing this story if he thought Dan was alive or dead. There was a very lengthy pause and I could tell he was reviewing the case from the surface and all the way down.

‘I don’t know.’ He was genuinely as confused as ever. ‘It could go either way.’ We may never have resolution to Dan’s case. Should we be angry with a friend who callously left so many people without a word or warning either by suicide or by flight? Or should we be mourning the death of a dive partner that continually reminds us that it could be our fate on the next dive.

In the next part of the series DEATH AT DEPTH, the puzzling case of the husband and wife dive team left on the Great Barrier Reef. Is it another case of suicide, accidental death or an organized flight from life? In the third part, we will look into certified cases of DEATH AT DEPTH, where recovered bodies reveal suicide most strange and even murder. Finally, we will conclude the series with hard statistics about DEATH AT DEPTH: Suicide – A peaceful drift dive down into a blue nether world or agonizing terror?

DEATH AT DEPTH, whether by accident or personal design, is an important issue that is rarely spoken about on dive boats and even more rarely in dive magazines. We believe it is an issue that should be approached in a forthright manner. This may upset some of you, but it may provide others with answers they have been too afraid to ask. We’d like to make this a forum and invite you to send comments to DiveNewZealand@aol.com

Disclaimer: As a safeguard from any potential legal quagmires, some details in this story have been sanitized, disguised or omitted, but they are nonetheless true.




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