Incident on the Peronne

One thing that has troubled me over the years that I've been diving is that when there are diving incidents details are often withheld giving the reason of having respect for the privacy of the persons involved. This troubles me as incidents are often a wake up call and if we, as a club, are revising our procedures after an incident, why should others not get to revise theirs without having to go thorough the trauma we did?

So I present a report on an incident. I have talked to all the people and nobody is quoted who wasn't asked. The only identified person is me and I was not on the boat. You might be able to work back to deducing who some of the other parties are but please don't and please don't bother. Just say to yourself "There but for the grace of God go I" and learn from the things we experienced. I have 'depersonalised' the text not just to protect their identities but also so that you can substitute yourselves into any role. The quotes are not verbatim but rather reduced to a sound bite of the relevant point.

We are a normal, seaside BSAC club. We have two boats and every year we pull them out and trailer them off on the 'club holiday'. We range from Advanced Diver to Ocean Diver trainee and a week away from home means we can run a lot of diving and get some drills signed off as well as having a lot of fun. It normally runs quite smoothly but this year it didn't. We feel we learned a lot and this is the summary so that others can benefit too.

The plan was a morning dive on the Peronne, 3342 tons, torpedoed on the 1st of September 1917 by UC-65. She is listed at 29 meters and we were diving on a 5 meter high. Both boats were in use and both had several pairs of divers all of whom were qualified for the depth and had already dived similarly that week.

We had had trouble with mist delaying our diving but our experience, so far that week, was that once it was gone it was gone. Both boats are fully equipped with GPS, depth sounder and VHF radio with a back up hand held GPS and hand held VHF radio in the 'dry box'. We have an Oxygen kit on each boat based about a case containing both a constant flow mask and a demand valve system supplied by a separate 10L cylinder.

The wreck was located and a weighted shot line was dropped. An early pair ran a distance line from the shot to the wreck. The visibility was poor - say one to two meters and the shot was at about 34m in dark conditions. Most pairs reported a pleasant dive as we are quite used to managing poor vis. We were on slack.

I believe another pair snagged the distance line so it did not lie straight but I was unable to confirm the timing on this so it may be irrelevant.

Diver AA was experienced and diving with a single 15L and a pony on a necklace. Diver BB was less experienced but was considered trained and ready for the conditions diving a 15. Diver AA queried BB's lack of a cutting device and one was found. The dive was dark but largely uneventful and their plan was to return to the shot to ascend although they carried DSMBs and were able to use them. I believe both divers were on air. I have dived with AA in the past and was invited then to take either the octo or the reg in their mouth. I assume this dive was the same.

The Peronne is broken and the ship shaped bit is quite small so a 15 minute swim round brought them back to the distance line and they then moved over to the shot. As they approached the shot diver BB became entangled in the distance line and in struggling to get free kicked up a large cloud of silt. The visibility dropped to well less than a meter "you could reach further than you could see" and the slack water was not clearing it. I believe that AA only became aware that the problem was entanglement when the knife was produced.

This report was hand written by diver AA at '18 metres' in the recompression chamber in Poole an hour after being treated with sedatives. I have merely transcribed it verbatim, edited out the identifications and had AA check it and later expand it.
Dived as buddy pair. Low vis (1-2m). Descended
shotline. Wreck was a few meters from bottom of
shot; DSMB line had been laid by earlier divers to
wreck (Depth 32m).
Swam around wreck without incident (for 12-13mins).
Returned to shot line to ascend. Diver BB was unable
to move up the line (later established fin was trapped on
DSMB line).
BB tried to free foot/fin. Kicked up silt whilst
doing so. BB tried to signal problem to AA, but the
message was not understood. BB reached for the knife (on their
leg), whilst doing so dislodged reg from their mouth. BB took
AA's reg from their mouth. AA switched to
pony (3Ltr). BB's reg was free-flowing.
AA still unaware of what problem was stopping the ascent. AA started
CBL holding BB's stab jacket. Was unable to lift BB.
By this stage BB was very agitated, consuming air @ high rate. BB's
own reg was still free flowing AA was unable to stop it. Near zero viz
where silt had been kicked up.
AA checked around BB's kit and body to identify reason they could not lift.
Found foot/fin trapped cut
line. BB very agitated. AA dived down to cut line (there was
short period where BB was without a reg during this maneuver).
BB responded "OK" to hand signal from AA to start ascent, and adjusted
their buoyancy during the early stages of ascent. BB had high breathing rate.
AA wrapped an arm around shot line to assist with controlling ascent.
BB took AA's other reg from their mouth on a number of occasions during
ascent (breathed from combination of AA main & pony regs).
BB started to pass out. AA purged reg in BB's mouth; air flowed as expected.
BB became unconscious during later phase of ascent.
No response from BB to shaking by AA, some bubbling from BB's mouth during
the ascent.
AA recovered BB to the surface, signalled to boat.
BB was recovered to a RIB by the divers aboard including CC, an Advanced Diver and Instructor and DD who has considerable medical training. They worked on BB while the coastguard were contacted.

BB was not breathing and was described as 'blue' and 'blotchy'. CPR was administered and breathing was restarted. There were problems establishing an airway for rescue breaths (see the quote from CC below). CPR was continued and first some colour was recovered then sounds and then signs of discomfort. CC was holding the oxygen mask trying to keep up the reassuring talk and asked "squeeze my hand" and got a squeeze back. After some time BB recovered a measure of consciousness.

Diver AA was recovered by the second RIB and treated with oxygen but was fully aware. However they had both done a rapid ascent so they were both considered casualties.

The lifeboat from Brixham was called to attend by the Coastguard and in increasing mist had difficulty locating the two RIBs. The Coastguard used their locator system, I think it is triangulation, to get a fix on the VHF radio. We have commercial 'Radar Reflectors' mounted on the A-frames on both RIBs but they appear to be ineffective.

The casualties were moved first to the lifeboat, then to the Coastguard helicopter and they were flown at low level to Poole for recompression treatment as, apparently, Plymouth was fog bound. BBs kit was not recovered and a later search did not find it so we sadly presume that it sank. Also BB's drysuit was cut off and hence destroyed.

AA was released that evening and was picked up and brought back to our Brixham base but BB was held in hospital overnight due to inhaled water in the lungs. BB was released at 2pm the following day with a course of antibiotics and was picked up and brought back to Brixham also.

BB's partner, also a diver: "I spoke to the nurse and they were surprised. If you had to pick the person on the ward who had just had a traumatic, life threatening experience it would not be BB."

CC "Getting a clear airway was hard. The mouth was full of froth and stuff and I tried wiping it out and tipping it out and tried AV on the nose and the mouth but it took a while to get a good, obvious chest expansion. DD was working on CPR and we weren't coordinated, just both trying to make things work in the bottom of a RIB."

DD "I've seen many dead people and BB was dead. However we did the CPR and it is amazing to see them back here, having dinner with us, within 48 hours."

DD is medically trained and had recently done a hospital CPR course. Their boat also contained EE who uses radio professionally.

We discussed the fact that BB took a reg from AA several times but BB does not remember this period. We suspect they were over breathing and getting a CO2 build up but it is impossible to ever be sure.

Neither diver is recommended to dive for 6 weeks but AA volunteered to be crash test dummy for a rescue scenario on the last day of the holiday. So it was a tow ashore including full contact CPR (seal but don't blow), being dekitted in the shallows, being dragged onto the beach and getting another helping of club Oxygen.

That night we all had dinner together. We were a happy diving club but I think many of us disproved the idea that grown ups don't cry.

I'm not going to second guess what the club will do. We have a DO and a committee to plan stuff like that. They're good folk and I trust them.

So what did I learn personally? Well if you're going to have an incident pick the right buddy and make sure you have the right people in the boat.
Aside from that strive to be that 'right person' for somebody else. On our drill day I was given the honour (it felt like an honour) of doing the first recovery, AV and tow on AA as casualty. I assure you that in gloves and full cold water kit plus just a small swell it is a lot harder than the pool exercise we teach. You want to be equipped to be a safe pair of hands to do any part of the operation. The oxygen kit must come together for you because you've done it before. CPR? Practiced. AV? trained. Radio? Drilled. Diver recovery to a beach or the boat? Ready. Even just running up the beach and accosting the first person who looks like they'll have a mobile phone and making sure all the relevant details and the exact location are passed to the emergency services and then report back.

So there you have it. Maybe we were doing the right things. Maybe all that training paid off. Maybe we were just lucky. Probably a bit of all three. It wasn't a happy day for us but it all ended well. We all learnt a lot and we have discussed it and realise that others can learn from this incident too. It is scary to look back but we are looking forward and there is lots more diving to do this year and we want it to be safe diving.