Seven Minutes and 150 Feet
Nearly one year ago, February 26, 2013, two young Navy divers died during a reckless and unnecessary certification dive in frigid 150 feet deep water at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Their deaths were attributable to inadequate leadership, poor procedures and lack of risk assessment.
Just four weeks earlier a civilian technician also drowned in what is known as the “Super Pond”, an Army weapons testing site that is used for dive exercises. The bottom of the pond, some 300 feet in diameter, is reportedly a thicket of debris, wires and cables.
The two divers, James Reyher and Ryan Harris made a dive using scuba instead of Mark 16 re-breathers that would have allowed for a greater safety margin. In what is known as a “bounce” dive they would only have 11 minutes for their descent/ascent. No Navy diver had gone deeper than 130 feet in years, according to the Washington Post.
Trouble at the TOP
The divers were assigned to Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 (MDSU2) which apparently had a history of ineffective leadership and morale. In fact, the unit commander, Michael Runkle, was fired after the incident, though not charged in the deaths.
The Virginian-Pilot quotes Runkle describing “a broken chain of command in which he was perceived as distant and disengaged. He said his executive officer and the command master chief used intimidation, bullying and fear to prevent sailors from approaching him.”
“There was a leadership vacuum and various personnel who exercised an informal but powerful pseudo-authority inside the command.”
Implicit in Runkle’s admission is that his own staff had rendered him ineffective and he was apparently powerless to change the atmosphere.
At the heart of the case is that Reyher and Harris may have felt pressured to complete the dive so that they could deploy. Runkle had written in an essay that Navy divers, “Never say can’t”, lessening the chances that line personnel would be comfortable saying no to a risky and needless activity.
The Day of the Dive
When the deaths occurred there were two separate chains-of-command in effect, one for the dive and one for the evaluators. Proper breathing equipment was not available. At least one diver stated supervisors were under pressure to complete the evaluation dive. A number of participants were cited for failing to follow procedures or to conduct a risk assessment.
With the Mark 16’s out-of-service there was no margin for error in what was a completely discretionary evolution that would breach the Navy’s own guidelines. Reyher and Harris entered the frigid water in wet suits with a single bottle of air good for about eleven minutes.
Incredibly, the dive before theirs was safely aborted after a tending line became tangled, suggesting the dangers involved.
At 3:30 into their descent they were signaled to return. There was confusion as it became apparent they were tangled. Bubbles rising to the surface increased dramatically and then stopped. It was over within minutes.
An OSHA investigation into a diver death just one month before this incident cited seven serious violations including improper training, poor supervision, and dives without a standby diver.
Abdul-Mutakallim, a Navy diver present that day, had the last word when he said:
“It was high risk for low reward.”