David Shaw Kept His Word

By Rochelle Mutton; Pics by Derek Hughes

Diving the Cumberland

Diving the Cumberland

Descending into the pure blackness of a 271m water cave in South Africa was enough to give Australian technical diver Dave Shaw a world record. But when he found a body at the bottom of Boesmansgat Cave, in the Northern Cape, he vowed to not only plumb the depths again but to retrieve the remains.

It was no less ambitious than scaling Mount Everest to fetch a corpse from the summit.

Shaw was a champion of excellence, extremes and altruism. His first record-breaking 271m descent down a shot-line to the cave floor was on 28 October last year. Defying fear from under a skyscraper-sized tower of water, he spent a few precarious minutes exploring the silt bottom.

He tied-off a thin cave-line to the base of the shot-line and, as fate would have it, stumbled across the decade-old remains of diver Deon Dreyer, a 20-year-old South African who had died on 17 December 1994. Shaw reeled off the cave-line onto Dreyer, then began the 12-hour ascent required for decompression. After making contact with Dreyer’s grieving parents, Shaw promised to return their son to them.

In the most extraordinary tragedy and twist, Shaw fatally lost consciousness when he returned to Boesmansgat’s floor on 8 January.

For four days he lay by Dreyer’s remains in the watery grave. Just as police divers and Shaw’s devastated team were packing up the last of the equipment from the ill-fated mission, Shaw’s body floated up to the roof of the cave, within 20m of the surface.

Suspended from Shaw’s body by a tangle of cave line was a bag containing Dreyer’s remains.

It had cost more than he bargained for, but Shaw had kept his word.

Don Shirley, who was Shaw’s number one diver on the mission, has been making a remarkable recovery from a severe bend in his middle ear that developed after he tried to rescue Shaw. ‘I’ve still got a standing-on-jelly feeling in my head,’ he quipped.

Shaw’s plan had been to enter the water first and take 13 minutes to descend 271m, cut free the equipment on Dreyer’s remains and passed it in relay fashion from one diver up to the next, staggered along the shot-line.

During his descent to 220m, Shirley sensed that something was wrong. Shaw should have already have started his ascent past the 250m mark, causing a little air to rise from his rebreather. But his torchlight didn’t pick up a single bubble.

‘At that point I though “OK, well, we’ve got a problem”,’ he recalled. ‘I could actually see Dave’s light in the distance, bearing in mind we’re in a huge, cathedral-style cave that’s as black as night but crystal clear water.

‘All I could see in the distance was a lone star – Dave’s torch – and it wasn’t moving.

‘The plan was I’d meet Dave at 220m. But if Dave was having problems, I’d go to Dave to help out.

‘I carried on going and heard a slight crack – like the way a windscreen cracks when a stone hits it. I carried on, then I heard a thud. The controller which was on my right wrist had imploded completely and that’s the thing that controls the oxygen to my rebreather, so then I started to operate it manually.

‘If they fail, you must leave or you don’t come back.’

The most dangerous aspect of deep diving is the specialised use of gas mixtures, according to Derek Hughes, a deep diver on the Boesmansgat mission who took the last photos of Shaw alive.

‘All three breathing gases – helium, nitrogen and oxygen – under pressure have negative effects on the body which we have to balance out by mixing them in appropriate ratios,’ Hughes explained.

‘Oxygen is toxic and at certain levels will poison you and cause you to lose consciousness. Nitrogen is narcotic and gives you an affect that you’ve had far too much to drink or can make you completely delirious and helium causes the shakes.’

Hughes explained that deep divers carried numerous back-ups of their equipment, in case of mechanical faults; Shaw had five sources of breathing gas, two of every computer and four lights.

‘What we only have one of on a dive is our own body,’ he said. ‘So if any part of the body fails catastrophically – stroke, heart attack, unconsciousness, anything to do with the physiology or neurology of the body – there’s no real back-up for that.’

Shirley was just 20m away from Shaw’s motionless headlight, when the broken gauges forced him to ascend. But as he tried to manually adjust his gas mixtures according to the new depth, he added too much oxygen and started his own fight for survival.

‘I spiked at 2bar pO2,’ he said.’ You don’t say “I’m going to die,” but rather “what do I need to do now”.’

Instead of Dreyer’s remains being passed up the line, Shirley’s slate become the baton, first passed to Peter Herbst at 120m with the words: ‘Dave’s not coming back.’

Shirley said he didn’t take as many cylinders off the shot-line as he should have but left some extra for Shaw, in the hope he would still fight his way out of trouble.

‘When I got to 50 metres, that’s when my world started to go pear-shaped,’ Shirley recalled. ‘I started to pass-out at 40m. As I learned later I had a decompression illness (bends) in my middle ear.

‘I’m spinning like a top. I don’t know which way is up, down, sideways or anything. I literally spun to 36 metres and that’s when I became conscious enough to read my gauges.

‘The computer was now saying I had to go back to 46m. As I go down I get more ill and start to vomit and the world is spinning still.’

For the first few hours of a marathon 13 hours underwater waiting for decompression, Shirley was on his own and had to clip cylinders on and off, manually monitor his gas mixes and read tables. Every movement made him feel worse.

‘By the time I got near the surface I had to literally purge hard to force the air into my lungs,’ he said. ‘I spent some hours doing that.’

In the final stages, doctors joined him at 6m. By the time he got to the final 3m decompression stop, his legs were aching and he was ready to be rushed into the nearby portable decompression unit, where he spent the next eight hours.

In the following days, repeated 90-minutes sessions in a decompression unit got him standing, then walking again.

‘At no time did I think I wasn’t coming out (of the cave),’ Shirley said. ‘Dave would have been exactly the same mindset. He would have been determined to carry on until he couldn’t carry on anymore.’

Video footage retrieved from Shaw’s camera shows how the operation went wrong. Shaw had been expecting to cut Dreyer free from his tanks, embedded in the silt. But instead it was all sitting loosely and as Shaw tried to cut off the tanks, he got tangled in the cave-line. He was ascending, nevertheless, when he passed out.

Peter Herbst was present during the grim recovery of Shaw’s body and video. ‘If you over-exert yourself at those depths you start to get oxygen toxicity. It hits you very, very fast,’ he said.

‘On the tape you can actually hear him breathing harder and harder and harder and harder – then there’s silence.’

As part of formalities to end the tragic dive mission, police divers attached lift bags at the 100m mark on the shot-line.

Never would they have guessed the tangle at the cave floor. As the lift bags rose to the surface, Shaw’s body and the bag were jolted off the silt bottom. As the body became shallower, the internal, expanding air caused Shaw’s body to float up to the cave roof, towing Dreyer’s remains.

Herbst said the tangled cave-line kept the two bodies together. ‘The only thing holding them together was this piece of line between Dave’s torch and Deon’s body,’ he said.

Boesmansgat is the third deepest cave in the world with an entrance just one metre by three, plunging down a 40m chimney of dolomite that then expands into a cavern of nothingness.

Hughes explained its enchanting underwater appeal: ‘You can see a diver’s lights 100m away, if not further. You have a complete sense of weightlessness, in a true void. The walls are so far away, the roof is so far away, you’re in the middle of nowhere. People dive in the sea because it’s full of colour and movement. People dive in caves for the quiet peace, the aloneness, the darkness.’

Shaw’s Memorial

By Michelle Mutton

An embrace between diving families who lost loved ones was the defining moment

of Australian diver Dave Shaw’s memorial service.

Steven Shaw, 23, from Melbourne, walked out of the Pretoria chapel with teary eyes and hugged Marie Dreyer, who had lost her son in a diving accident 10 years ago.

It was her son Deon’s remains that Dave Shaw, 50, died while trying to recover from the bottom of a 271m lake cave in South Africa’s Northern Cape, on January 8.

‘I’m happy that Dad was able to successfully connect the (cave) line to the body so their son could be brought up and bring closure for them,’ Steven said, outside the chapel.

‘I’m pleased he died doing something he loved doing and was helping a family in the process.’

Shaw’s close friend and family pastor Michael Vickers flew in from Hong Kong to hold the service.

He read a letter from Shaw’s daughter Lisa, 21, from Melbourne.

‘He approached the world with the wisdom of a 50-year-old but the desires of a 20-year-old, always striving to learn new skills and discover new things’ she wrote. ‘He did not dive for the recognition, he dived so that he could go where no man had explored before.

‘The recognition, much to his embarrassment, just seemed to come with it.

‘I am at peace because I know having faced death before that, my father was unafraid with the prospect.

’Let’s be honest, my Dad was not the sort of person who was going to take old age gracefully.’

Pastor Vickers spoke about a different Shaw to the raw adventurer. ‘For David to be brave and for David to be heroic, which he was, he would choose love,’ he said.

‘Love was more than a feeling – it was a choice, a way to live. And to do that he never shut down or closed anyone out. He was always painfully open and vulnerable to all his family and friends.’

Autopsy Report

Much has been written in the lay press regarding the death of David Shaw on 8 January 2005 in Bushman’s Gat near Danielskuil in the Northern Cape, South Africa. There has been much speculation on the cause and the accuracy of reporting has been highly variable.

In the interest of dispelling myths, providing closure and doing justice to the memory and dignity of the deceased, we have reviewed all the evidence and prepared this report. Our objective is to provide an evidence-based answer to the cause of David’s death. While the forensic investigation has not been concluded, and some uncertainties remain, our conclusions – based on facts and materials that are already in the public domain – are unlikely to yield significantly to the admission of further evidence. We have examined the actual diving equipment; analyzed the gas mixtures used; critically reviewed the video footage from David’s camera; re-enacted the breathing patterns on the Mark 15.5 rebreather to capture the last 10 minutes of David’s life; and re-enacted the orientation of the deceased in relation to the body and the associated equipment. These are our conclusions:

David successfully reached his objective, but was unable to recover the body of Deon Dreyer at the bottom of Bushman’s Gat due to a number of unforeseen practical factors. He appropriately aborted the attempt at 6 minutes – as planned – but subsequently became entangled in the line previously used to mark the body. In the ensuing effort to free himself he succumbed to the combined effects of carbon dioxide build-up and nitrogen narcosis. It is certain that David died due to drowning after a loss of consciousness underwater, approximately 22 minutes after leaving the surface, at a depth of 264 metres. As he had enough gas reserves, the question is – why? The evidence suggests that David suffocated. Overfilling of his rebreather appears to have prevented him from exhaling properly. To illustrate this mechanism, imagine someone breathing out into a full bag of fresh air. Irrespective of the fact that the equipment (the bag) is fully functional and the gas (fresh air in this example) is safe, the inability to effectively breathe out results in a rise in carbon dioxide. The breathing impairment, combined with the increased activity of recovering the body, led to a critical build-up of carbon dioxide over a period of 10 minutes. This is sometimes called ‘deep water black-out’. David became increasingly incapacitated, eventually lost consciousness and ultimately drowned. While relatively swift, the duration of the process favours carbon dioxide build-up as a cause rather than a lack of oxygen. Nitrogen narcosis may have significantly interfered with his ability to solve the problem before it was too late. Calculations suggest that he may have experienced the narcotic equivalent of a 44 metre dive on air, but that this would have been compounded significantly as the carbon dioxide levels rose. Once he lost consciousness, drowning became inevitable. This tragic event is unlikely to stop deep cave and technical divers from pursuing the call for extreme exploration. Unfortunately, not only does diving become extremely hazardous at these depths, but also the effects of even simple problems are rapidly compounded as illustrated here. We hope that this may encourage such divers to be sensible and realistic about their ambitions for depth. Even David, who was a highly trained and experienced technical diver, was not immune to the dangers.

Frans J. Cronjé, MBChB(Pret), BSc(Hons) Aerosp Med; Hermie Britz, MBChB(Pret), BSc(Hons) Aerosp Med; Jack Meintjes, MBChB(Pret)

© Copyright 2004 www.Divenewzealand.com


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