Father and son die in Eagles Nest: Five Steps to Christmas Diving tragedy

Posted on March 25th 2014

A FATHER and teenage son who died while cave diving in Florida on Christmas Day had run out of air while diving to extreme depths, investigators have revealed.

The bodies of Darrin Spivey, aged 35, and his 15-year-old son Dillon Sanchez were found hours after they went diving at Eagles Nest, in Florida, last December.

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It has been reported that an investigation by Hernando County Sheriff's department found the pair died after losing track of time and diving to 233ft/ 71 metres with just air in their double tanks.

Rescuers found Spivey's body floating 120ft beneath the surface with his regulator out of his mouth. Sanchez was found at 67 metres with his mask around his neck. It is thought Sanchez may have run out of gas and his father was attempting to share air from his tanks.

“They (the rescue divers) further stated that they believed that Dillon panicked and attempted to swim to the surface, as he did not have his mouthpiece intact and his mask was around his neck,” the report stated.

 

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Any death like this is a tragedy for the families concerned and is one that the partners of cave divers no doubt silently fear each time their loved ones leave the house. But an examination of the incident using the five rules of accident analysis reveals where things went wrong.

1/ Training: According to the initial police report, Spivey was a certified open water diver but not a certified cave diver; Sanchez was not even a certified diver. Eagles Nest is considered an advanced dive and it is recommended that divers have a full cave cert, trimix cert and experience with deep caves.

As divers, it is incumbent upon us to recognise our limits. Our training only qualifies us to dive in conditions/environment similar to that in which we are trained. If we want to try something different, get the right training. There's nothing macho about being dead.

 

2/ Continuous Guidelines: No mention is made of whether or not they were following the main line through the cave. However a study by the Cave Divers Association of Australia into 368 cave deaths between 1968 and 2007 concluded: "In addition to breaking the training rule, untrained divers were more likely than trained divers to have broken the continuous guideline rule, the three lights rule, and the thirds rule.  Amongst untrained divers it was more likely that breaking the rule of thirds would be relevant, and that breaking the continuous guideline rule would be relevant." 

3/ Proper Air/Gas Management: After the divers were pulled out of the water, investigators found their tanks had run out of air. That's why cave divers practice the Rule of Thirds (Rule of Sixths for intro to cave divers). That's a third in, a third out and third for emergencies. It's a basic principle introduced at the start of all cave training and should be adhered to without exception.

4/ Observe Depth Limits: An examination of their equipment found the pair had hit 71m - on air. Enough said. At that depth, the partial pressure of oxygen in air becomes toxic. They were also most likely overcome by nitrogen narcosis. To safely carry out a dive to such depth, the men should have been using a trimix combination not air alone. It's not known if Spivey had a trimix cert, but Sanchez would not have one if he had no diver certification. Exceeding depths limits is the number one killer of trained cave divers.  

5/ Use appropriate and maintained equipment: The light sources the men were using had run out of batteries. Although it is not clear whether that happened during the dive or after the men had perished and before their bodies were found. At least some of the equipment was new. But what do we say about new gear? Test it in benign conditions first so you get a feel for how it works. Don't jump in on a deep decompression dive, for instance, if you have no idea how you new computer displays information. Carry adequate spares for redundancy and check everything is working properly.

To coin the cliché "If anything good comes from such a tragedy ..." we must all look at our own diving and ensure we have the experience and training for that which we are about to do. There is an accepted level of risk with cave diving and scuba diving in general and it is up to us to stack the odds in our favour. Thinking of our loved ones at home is not a bad thing either. Do you really want them to go through the heart-rending anguish experienced by the families of these two individuals. No, thought not. 

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