Safety warning after double diver tragedy

A coroner has issued a safety warning to scuba divers following a double drowning tragedy off the Irish coast last summer.

Cork City coroner Dr Myra Cullinane urged re-creational divers to follow the Irish Underwater Council’s rules and regulations while engaging in the risky sport in a bid to avert future similar tragedies.

She was speaking after holding a joint inquest into the deaths of experienced divers Stephen Clarke, 65, from Capel Dorking, Surrey, in Britain, and Jonathan Scott, 61, from Morley in Western Australia. They both drowned while diving on the wreck of a German U-boat about 3.5km south of High Island near Union Hall in West Cork on July 2 last.

They were among four men to die in diving incidents in Irish waters within weeks of each other last summer.

The inquest heard that the two diving buddies overstayed their planned 15-minute ‘bottom time’ and made a rapid ascent, missing three decompression stops before diving again, possibly in a bid to complete the decompression process.

However, they got into difficulty at about 25m on this second dive. Mr Scott sank to the seabed while Mr Clarke surfaced moments later unconscious.

Mr Clarke was recovered to the dive boat where CPR was administered before he was airlifted to Cork University Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Mr Scott’s body was recovered from the seabed by local diver John Kearney later that afternoon.

Postmortem examinations found both died from a combination of drowning and barotrauma, caused by ‘the bends’. A jury returned a verdict of death due to misadventure in both cases.

The inquest was told the men were on a diving holiday in Ireland with Clive Evans and his son Luke, and other family members, and were diving with Baltimore-based Aquaventures, run by Mr Clarke’s old friends, Jerry and Rianne Smith.

Mr Scott, who had dived in the Philippines just weeks earlier, had completed more than 480 dives in the previous decade. Mr Clarke had completed more than 1,200 dives without incident.

The diving party dived on shallower wrecks in the days before the incident to prepare for the dive on the U-boat, U260, which was scuttled in 1945 in 42m of water.

It is a popular but challenging dive, attracting up to 200 divers each year, and Mr Smith said all four were well qualified to do it.

They planned a 30-minute decompression dive and set out on Mr Smith’s Wave Chieftain vessel on the morning of July 2.

Mr Evans and Luke dived together first followed by Mr Clarke and Mr Scott just after 9.15am. They planned to spend 15 minutes descending via a ‘shot line’ to explore the wreck, and 15 minutes surfacing with staged decompression stops.

Mr Evans said he and his son swam bow to stern along the wreck and returned to the shot line to surface.

As they ascended, he said he saw Mr Clarke and Mr Scott swimming along the wreck exactly where he would have expected them to be and all appeared to be OK.

Garda Dave Finn, of the Garda Water Unit, said data from their dive computers showed Mr Scott and Mr Smith spent 17 minutes on the bottom — two minutes more than planned.

Nick Bailey, a diving safety expert with Britain’s Health and Safety Executive, found the men’s regulators — the mouthpieces through which they breathed air — did not meet requirements for inhalation pressure at the depths at which they were operating that morning, which would have made it more difficult to draw air.

Their dive computers showed they ascended rapidly from 42m to 24m, descended again to 32m, before making a rapid ascent to the surface.

Mr Smith, who remained on the dive boat, said Mr Clarke signalled that everything was OK and both men dived again. But tragedy struck on the second dive just 20m below the surface.

The bends can trigger nitrogen narcosis, which causes confusion, and may have been a factor.

Mr Scott’s son Benjamin, who travelled from Australia with his sister Hanna, said the inquest had given them closure.

“Obviously the circumstances are complex. You’ll never get all the answers. The two people who have the answers are no longer with us,” he said.

“But having the facts laid before us gives us enough closure to accept and move on. It may take some time though. He was a trusted confidante, a true believer in his children. He is a deeply missed man.”

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