Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Wondergat Fatalities

These stats are compliments of Mike Beresford, a fellow WUC (Wits Underwater) diver and long time friend...... Total Number Counted to date - 13.

1971: A diver from Wits Underwater Club died after a free ascent. The diver was using a cylinder with a reserve valve (J-valve), and no SPG. The J-valve usually had an actuation rod / pull rod down the side of the cylinder, to allow the diver to pull the reserve lever. In this case the diver did not have one, and was unable to access the reserve. He tried to do a free ascent, but suffered from pulmonary barotrauma. I spoke to Roly Nyman about this one years later, and he added a detail that is quite relevant to divers even today. The victim had done many dives with the cylinder, without the reserve rod, and always been able to actuate it. On this particular weekend he was diving in a brand new wetsuit – apparently a birthday present. The wetsuit was far stiffer than his old gear (probably a thick rugby jersey, knowing the times), and on this occasion he was unable to trigger the reserve. Even small changes in equipment can have a major effect. Don't take untried equipment on a deep dive.

1975: A diver died during a club trip with the Transvaal Sub Aqua club. I was later a member of this club, and had access to all the old records. I also spoke to older members about this accident, but no-one could shed much light on what actually happened. The diver had been trained overseas, in Germany, and had never dived with the club or in South Africa before. He was also suffering from flu at the time. The club Diving Officer advised him not to dive that weekend, both because of his condition and because the DO was not happy with his training records. The diver decided to go anyway, and the club took a “it’s your risk” approach. Afterwards this was a major discussion point at the club, and the committee minutes in the aftermath note that the club would, in future, be more “positive” in controlling who could and could not dive. In terms of the actual accident, it appears that the victim lost consciousness and drowned. Whether it was narcosis, medical, or a combination was uncertain.

1977: A bad year at Wondergat. Early in the year a diver from Eskom Sub Aqua died. Again the details are not too clear, as he separated from his buddies. His body was later found on the bottom.

Later in the year two divers from Wits Underwater Club died on a night dive, Wondergat’s first double fatality. The divers had been doing a shallow night dive , using a line and float to keep them at a safe depth, and out of overhangs. The club also had a surface marshal, logging each group in and out. The two divers surfaced after the dive, a few metres from the entrance. The surface marshal logged them as surfaced, but then some time later noted that they hadn’t climbed out. There was no sign of them at the water, or at the camp. A search was launched, and the bodies were recovered from the bottom. According to the theories on this accident, the two divers decided to swim underwater from where they had surfaced back to the exit point. However, on descent they managed to pull the surface float underwater, and ended up going all the way down. Inexperience was certainly a factor in this accident. It is also important to see how the systems they thought would protect them proved inadequate.

1983: The Niewenhuizen twins. Probably the most talked about accident at Wondergat. The twins were on a night dive, linked by a buddy line and with a single torch between them. At some point they separated from the group, and lost the single torch. The torch bobbing to the surface was actually the first sign that the rest of the group had of the problems. The bodies were recovered from the bottom the following morning. Although there was a lot of criticism of the dive group for allowing two divers to share a torch in this manner, it was not an uncommon practice. My first night dive at Wondergat two years before this was in exactly the same situation! It was only after this that it became an absolute rule that each diver had to carry their own torch.

1984: A diver died after becoming entangled in a rope near the grid during a night dive. I never got many details of this accident, as it involved a dive school at a time when there was tremendous animosity between schools and clubs. The dive school later denied that there had been an accident, my only lead was that I knew the divers who did the body recovery.

1985 or 1986: A diver from the RAU club died in the main cave. Again many details were unclear as the victim had separated from the rest of the team. His mask was found some distance from his body. There was speculation that he’d lost his mask, and tried to do an ascent with his eyes closed, or at least with minimum opening. He is thought to have hit his head on the cave roof and lost consciousness as a result. Nuno Gomes and Malcolm Keeping recovered the body.

1991: Dick Grace incident. A very experienced instructor (Instructor Trainer) was killed during a deep rescue. I haven’t got the full details, I was living in the UK at this time and only heard about it much later. As I recall a student also died. The whole dive was basically a mistake – inexperienced divers being taken too far. The fact that the leader was a very well experienced and qualified diver didn’t prevent the accident, the leader was killed trying to rescue one of the victims.

1996: A free diver died, presumably from breath-hold blackout. He had been free diving to the bottom of the main shot line, was seen to surface and then immediately sank. Sadly this took place right at the end of a weekend, so all scuba gear had already been packed away. By the time a team could be kitted up and sent down, it was too late. Despite lengthy resuscitation efforts, the diver died. The diver in question was very experienced, but perhaps showed poor judgement by free diving so deep with no cover available.

2004: A lady diver died during a dive. From what I could gather, the victim had a medical problem that resulted in her losing the regulator. She subsequently drowned before she could be rescued.

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