Deep Survival: One Deep Wreck Diver’s Story of Death and Survival
“A dive is an exercise in task management…nearly all of them appear to be simple, but even the simplest tasks…can have catastrophic consequences” – Phillip Finch, Diving Into Darkness
This is an incredible diving survival story. Decompression Illness, or “the Bends”, is a real and present danger for technical and recreational divers. What you are about to read is a three part series on one wreck diver’s experience with death, getting bent, barely surviving and coming back to tell the tale. This is Part I. If this story doesn’t give you chills, then you might need to check your pulse. – Editor-in-Chief, Brian J.
It is in technical diving (extended range, decompression, deep wreck diving) as it is in mountain climbing or any other type of extreme sport – if you do it enough and you do it long enough, it becomes a matter of when, not if, something happens. Your experience, training, and ability to stay calm are the only things that will keep you alive. I would argue from personal experience that your ability to control your emotions and not panic is what will keep you alive longer. It is only when you can control your psyche that you can rely on your training and experience.
Without your wits, you will most certainly die a horrific death underwater.
In 2002 and 2003, I was involved in two underwater emergencies – one in which I rescued a panic stricken diver who ran out of air at 110 ffw (feet freshwater), and another in which I ran out of air and had to buddy breathe with a fellow diver to the surface while completing our decompression. Neither completely prepared me for the dive I took a year later, on April 24, 2004, to the sunken steamer John J. Boland, Jr., which foundered in 1932 in a violent, sudden storm in the Eastern Basin of Lake Erie.
However, those experiences helped me come away from the dive with my life…barely.
Renowned deep explorer, author, famed wreck diver, and underwater photographer, Gary Gentile, sent me an email which contained the line – “Welcome back to the land of the living” – after returning home from the hospital following a speedy boat ride to shore, a life-flight helicopter trip, and a race against the clock to get me to a recompression chamber before I was permanently paralyzed or dead.
This is my story. It is raw. It is extremely personal. This is unabridged and unabashed. Much of it has never been told to anyone before.
My dear friend, legendary diver and admiralty attorney Peter Hess (God rest his soul), urged me to tell this story. He was one of the very few who knew everything that happened to me. He said it would be best to share this with as many divers as possible because it may just save someone’s life. Plus, he always said it is just a great survival story. Well, Peter, here it is…
Rescue #1: 2002 – Eastern Basin Lake Erie – wreck of the John J. Boland, Jr – Depth 140 ffw
There’s no way I’m seeing this. My eyes must be deceiving me. There’s absolutely no way this guy is doing this, I thought as I suited up in my gear on board a dive boat in Eastern Lake Erie.
I actually made a joke to one of my buddies on board – “this fucking guy is going to kill himself”.
I heard he was a novice. In fact, this was his first dive after completing his open water course – basic open water, not advanced open water. He wanted to dive with the big boys. He failed to realize we had been honing our underwater skills for years. As you will read below, people like this are just as likely to kill someone else underwater as they are themselves.
We were getting ready to dive on the John J. Boland, Jr. – a 253 foot (77 meter) long steel steamer which sank in a storm in 1932, with four hands in less than five minutes. It is a beautiful wreck. It is almost completely upside down, but the port side is still above the bottom of the lake to allow divers access to the cabin and pilot house, as well as the cargo holds. The two highlights for me are entering the pilot house and the intact giant rudder and propeller.
I was diving my regular rig – dry suit, double steel 95s filled with air, 40cf deco bottle with 50% O2, multiple reels, lift bags, redundant bottom timers, etc. While the rest of us onboard were putting on our typical 150-pound deep wreck diving gear, this guy who I will name “Jack”, was doing something completely different. I watched in utter amazement as Jack pulled his gear out of his bag. Everyone on board was diving dry as the water was still in the upper 30s at depth. Jack did not have a dry suit, but he did have quite an interesting one.
He first put on a one-piece 3-mil wetsuit. He then pulled out a navy blue sweatshirt with matching sweatpants and put that on over his wetsuit! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. To make it worse Jack then pulled out a two-piece 5-mil farmer-john wetsuit and put that over the sweatshirt and sweatpants! That’s right, Jack was wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants sandwiched between a 3-mil wetsuit and a two-piece 5-mil wetsuit! Not only did he look completely ridiculous, he could barely move, looking more like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man than a deep diver. His BCD barely fit and had to be adjusted. He put on all of the weight he brought.
After he finished suiting up he fell (notice I did not say jumped) over the side and made a huge splash. I was already in the water watching this circus from the surface. As you may be thinking, how could Jack with all of that for a suit ever sink? Exactly. He was so buoyant he could not slip below the surface. He had to climb back on board the dive boat and get more weight. It was Summer. Even though it was slightly above freezing at the bottom, it was hot on the surface. You can see where this is headed. Wearing that suit with all that gear and climbing back on board Jack was probably dehydrated. He was definitely overworked.
The crew on board helped him add more weight to his weight belt. I’m not sure how much weight he had, but I saw plenty of 8 pounders on his weight belt and the bucket of extra weight on board was exhausted. Jack was weighted down heavily.
As Jack again fell overboard into the water, I was on the down line heading towards the wreck as I wanted to stay as far away from him as possible.
I spent most of the dive in the stern section checking out the gunwales and exploring the huge port side propeller. The rudder and rudder post are still attached and are quite impressive in their own right. As I hovered near the propeller I saw Jack kicking as hard as he could, swimming aft along the port side gunwale. Jack looked stressed as he was swimming with his arms and legs in a crazed motion – a very erratic doggie-paddle. Something was wrong.
I was thirty feet away and could see his eyes. They were extremely dilated. He was starting to panic.
Just as I started swimming towards him to help, Jack swam to another diver and grabbed her regulator out of her mouth. He was in full panic at a 110 feet (33 meters) below the surface. Jack was so heavily weighted he dragged her towards the bottom as he tried in vain to grab anything he could on her BCD to keep her close to him. He looked like a panicked swimmer on the surface pushing the rescuer’s head below the water in order to keep himself above water. This could end terribly at any moment. I thought Jack was going to kill her.
I swam quickly over to her and grabbed the regulator out of his mouth that he took and gave it back to her. I grabbed Jack’s jacket style BCD on the left shoulder and pulled him over her head and away from her. Jack was grabbing at all my gear. He was pulling at my dry suit inflation hose, all my straps, and grabbing my gauge console. I was swatting away his hands so he wouldn’t pull out my dry suit inflation hose or wouldn’t break any of my second stages. I kicked him away once so he wouldn’t drag me down. As I did, he grabbed and broke my right fin strap. I swam down towards him and pulled out my regulator, which was attached to a six foot hose, and put it into his mouth and purged it. My second regulator sits just beneath my chin on surgical tubing around my neck. All I did was tilt my head down and my second regulator was right there. I had practiced switching regulators underwater so often that I didn’t even have to think about it.
Because Jack was so heavily weighted, I swam as hard as I could away from the bottom and towards the anchor line, mindful of our depth, so we didn’t crash into the bottom at 137 feet (42 meters) I grabbed the anchor line at an approximate depth of 100 feet (30 meters). I was facing Jack. My right hand was tight around his left shoulder strap. Jack’s right hand was on the anchor line. As I stared into Jack’s eyes I could tell he was frightened. I was hoping I could calm him down sufficiently so he wouldn’t suck down the rest of my air. He was in the panic cycle. Once the cycle starts it is difficult to stop. At this point I was more worried about running out of air or not completing my decompression obligation because of him.
I signaled to Jack that I was going to control the deco stops. He nodded his head. I doubted he understood the signaling, but at least he was communicating with me on some level, even if it was a minimal head nod.
I stared into his eyes and signaled for him to watch me breathe. I inhaled a large, deep breath while motioning with my hand to breathe in and breathe out. I did this multiple times. It didn’t work. He was sucking down air.
I wrote on my underwater wrist slate “CALM DOWN” in big block letters.
I knew telling a panic stricken person to “calm down” never works, but it was worth a try. It didn’t work. His eyes were large and he was breathing hard. I thought he was going to blackout.
I needed to get him to relax his breathing enough so we could surface and so there wouldn’t be two casualties. I didn’t know what to do so I unclipped my pressure gauge and handed it to him, while pointing to the gauge. The needle didn’t lie. We had air in my tanks. Suddenly, his breathing settled and his eyes relaxed. He was holding that gauge tight, like he was clinging to life, which I guess he was.
I again signaled that I would control decompression. He nodded his head. Finally, it looked as if he was somewhat clear headed. His breathing had calmed enough so I could be a little more comfortable that we wouldn’t run out of air prior to finishing our decompression. We started up the line.
I did a couple of deep stops – 90 feet, 80 feet, 75 feet (27 meters, 24 meters, 23 meters) – just to be sure he was still with me. Jack was breathing nicely and was still clutching my pressure gauge with a steel grip. We ascended more.
We were making slow, steady progress up the line pausing often so I can monitor the pressure gauge with my own eyes. We continued.
We were going to start bumping into some divers on the anchor line around 45 feet (14 meters) Since I had Jack with me and he couldn’t control his buoyancy without clinging to the anchor line, I signaled to Jack that I was going to swim up the line and he would follow me from below. This is basic, two regulator, emergency breathing. I’ve practiced it, like we all should, dozens of times. Effectively the lead diver swims towards the exit (in this case towards the surface, up the anchor line) while the trailing diver breathes off the lead diver’s regulator which is on a six foot hose and is streamlined between the lead diver’s legs. This is how two divers buddy breathe while escaping from inside a wreck, cave, or overhead environment.
After I signaled to Jack, I let go of his BCD and slowly swam above him. He was still clinging to the anchor line. I paused momentarily to make sure he was ok. I took my pressure gauge. He was breathing fine and nodded in agreement. We continued to ascend the anchor line, this time in a single file line with me above and Jack directly below my fins.
Once we, or I should say, I, arrived at 40 feet (12 meters) to warn the divers above us that we were emergency ascending, I looked down and saw my regulator wrapped around the anchor line and Jack descending towards the bottom of Lake Erie with his arms in the air. In all honesty I was more upset that my Poseidon Jetstream MK3 regulator was twisted around the anchor line than I was at having to help Jack again. He had no business being in the water.
At that point I stopped caring whether he lived or died.
I didn’t want him to hurt anyone else. I was more concerned with making sure I had a long enough surface interval before I attempted to recover his body.
As I saw him descending I couldn’t help myself. I untangled my regulator and swam for him. Instinctual I guess. Drowning is no way to go.
I swam hard and caught up with him. Once I reached him, Jack put his regulator in his mouth. He took one breath and nothing. He started giving me the international signal for “out of air” by violently moving his hand across his throat. His eyes were bulging out of his head. I have never seen somebody so scared. I shoved my regulator back in his mouth and purged it again.
I shook my head in disapproval and grabbed him by his left shoulder strap again. This time I didn’t let go. We ascended up the line side by side. We finished our decompression obligation without any further issues.
I thought the drama would have ended after the dive was over. I was wrong. Once we surfaced Jack started yelling and screaming – at me! He stated there were no issues at depth and he didn’t do anything wrong and he had everything under control!
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! I just saved his life (twice) and he was blaming me for everything.
Jack was obviously embarrassed. Instead of taking responsibility for diving well beyond his capability and without the appropriate equipment or proper training, he lashed out at me. He must have believed it was easier to shift the focus to someone else other than evaluate himself.
As politely as I could, I told Jack he wasn’t cut out for diving. I told him he was a liability to those around him in the water and that instead of trying to fit in with those of us who had advanced training and an abundance of deep diving experience, he should have taken his time to gather the appropriate level of expertise to attempt the dive he made. I told him he was lucky he was alive. I told him he almost killed my friend underwater and that if there was a next time, I would let him go and not risk my own life to save his. With that said, Jack sat down and didn’t say another word.
This is very similar to those mountaineering tourists who pay tens of thousands of dollars and buy all the newest equipment to “climb” Everest. They are literally taken by the hand and guided through the entire climb. Yet, they lack any self rescue skills. Without somebody with the experience to help them through a stressful situation, they would surely die, and do. Money can buy you all the best gear, but it cannot buy you experience. Jack is a prime example of why I usually dive solo.
Rescue #2: 2003 – Morehead City, North Carolina – wreck of the Caribsea – Depth 90 fsw
Just a few days before I had awoken from the anesthesia with neck pain. I just had a lymphectomy. My medical team recommended the removal of a few lymph nodes from the right side of my neck in order to conduct a biopsy for cancer. The following week I was planning on diving the U-352, Papoose, Caribsea, Proteus, etc. Hell, I was even going to dive with the “Father of East Coast Wreck Diving” Michael DeCamp. We had been planning these dives for months and didn’t want to miss them, so I begged the surgeon to squeeze me in before the trip.
On the dive boat, I was trimming my stitches with a dive knife – they were sticking out of my neck and were itching.
Couldn’t take it anymore. So in between the wave action I was cutting as much as I could. Between the shears and the knife I was able to get the stitches a little closer to the skin. I decided to put some duct tape on the scar so I wouldn’t itch it any longer. Time to go diving.
We were anchored into the Caribsea – a freighter torpedoed by the U-158 in World War II. More than a dozen sand tiger sharks were swimming over the wreck. Visibility was phenomenal – nearly 100 feet. I was heading for the forecastle in the bow. The ship impacted and was buried in the sand. The bow is remarkable – highlighted by the anchor chains and windlass, but has since collapsed. The engine and boilers are very prominent and are definitely worth seeing as well.
After I was done exploring the wreck, I began my ascent. Another diver on the boat dropped their camera while they were on the anchor line. Since I just started my ascent, I swam back down, grabbed the camera, clipped it my harness, and headed back up the anchor line.
I worked my way up the anchor line admiring the view from above the wreck. Definitely not what I was used to in the Great Lakes. I was accustomed to viz significantly less. I soaked up the moment. At about 25 feet I took a breath and ….. nothing.
I was out of air. Damn, I stayed too long, I thought.
If you’ve never experienced that before, it is quite possibly one of the worst feelings known to mankind. My good friend, Mike Greuter, and I were no further than 20 feet apart. I signaled “out of air” and started swimming towards Mike. Whoever was next to Mike on the anchor line just stared at me and didn’t move. (The diver later told Mike he thought I was joking. Mike told him “we never joke about that”.) Mike was Johnny-on-the-spot and arrived with his primary regulator in his outstretched hand for me.
We both finished our deco and ascended to the surface together without any issues. Back on the boat I told Mike, “Thanks, brother. Glad you were there.” We swapped out tanks and were ready for our next dive.
This story isn’t that remarkable. Divers the world over have had an experience like this. I only mention this to contrast the difference a competent dive partner can make in an emergency. Sometimes the ability to control your mind and emotions is the only thing separating the survivor from those who perish. Mike immediately recognized I was in trouble and needed help. He didn’t think twice and calmly, but swiftly, swam over to me and gave me his regulator. Most importantly, I didn’t start mauling Mike for his regulator like Jack did in the previous story. Neither of us panicked. Neither of us lost control of our minds. Neither of us did anything other than react the appropriate way, in a timely manner, and in a way we had trained for a situation just like this. Easy day.
We are running this story in three parts. Part II and Part III will be published shortly. The story will conclude with Part III. In Part II, Erik experiences his own personal brush with death. You won’t want to miss it. You can subscribe to the email list or follow us on Facebook to be notified when they are published. – Brian J.
Erik Petkovic began his diving career in 1997 and has logged hundreds of dives along the East Coast and the Great Lakes region of the U.S. An avid shipwreck researcher, he has been published in multiple international dive magazines. He is currently authoring two forthcoming books Shipwrecks of Lake Erie and a yet to be titled photographic companion book. Erik is available for seminars and speaking engagements. He currently resides in Southern Maryland with his wife and two sons.