Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fatality in the WKP

It is with a heavy heart that I report of a fatality in the Woodville Karst Plain. Jim Miller, WKPP exploration diver, passed away on June 11, 2011. My condolences to all his loved ones and friends. Tragically, his death was caused by human error. I never knew Jim, but I had seen him a few times in and around Extreme Exposure in High Springs, and his name and face were familiar from years of reading WKPP exploration updates. His death is a big loss for the WKPP, GUE community, cave diving community, and greater diving public. It is a reminder that no-one is infallible, not even those at the peak of competence and experience.

I copy below a forum post from WKPP member Todd Leonard. The post explains the circumstances behind the accident and what went wrong.

I have some additional info to relay now, some of which has been described in fragmentary form on other forums, but for greatest clarity, I'll just try to present a chronological summary of the dive:

Jim was diving with two buddies Saturday, each using an RB80 rebreather. They entered at a site in the WKP (Woodville Karst Plain) called Whiskey Still Sink. From Whiskey, the conduit proceeds at a shallow depth to Innisfree Sink, and beyond Innisfree it drops deeper to a max depth around 220ft and continues. Thus, their decompression was to be done on the other side of Innisfree. Their bottom mix was 240 gas. They carried deco gas to be used at 120, 70, and oxygen at 20. Given the offset profile, they did their own deco setup.

They began the dive on their 120 bottles, which are suitable for the shallow cave between Whiskey and Innisfree. Passing Innisfree they dropped deco bottles at their respective depths. The first error occurred at the 70ft stop, where Jim dropped one of his 240 bottles -- he should have dropped his 70ft bottle, and it should not have been carried any further into the cave.

After proceeding down to the 120ft stop, the team stopped for their switch to 240 gas (their bottom gas). At this point the second and most serious error occurred -- Jim switched onto his 70 bottle. Part of our standard procedure and a very critical step in each and every bottle switch is to check the MOD sticker on the side of the bottle, which would have made very clear that he was about to switch to the wrong bottle; we don't know why, but this check was missed. We also want buddies to watch each others' switches carefully enough to confirm the correct bottle is in play, but this secondary check was not performed and the error was not caught. Following the switch the team dropped their 120 bottles, and proceeded into the cave.

They continued into the cave for a little less than an hour (with Jim breathing his 70 bottle), and turned the dive as planned. Not long after the turn, Jim experienced a seizure. His buddies tried unsuccessfully to help him recover from the seizure, and Jim drowned.

After a prolonged exit the team was able to bring Jim back to the basin at Innisfree, and shortly thereafter a pair of our support divers brought him back to the surface.

So, that's the crux of it. There was a significant error, a critical error, plus missed opportunities to catch and correct those errors.

Jim was a very experienced and responsible diver, and known among his friends for his exceptional meticulousness. We're profoundly shocked and saddened to lose him, and he'd be one of the last people we'd ever imagine might die this way. This dive was well within his skill and experience levels, and the site was very familiar to him.

- Todd Leonard
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