Deep Survival: One Deep Wreck Diver’s Story of Death and Survival – Part II
“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 II of three parts (Part I is here – you should read it first). If the entire story doesn’t give you chills, then you might need to check your pulse. – Editor-in-Chief, Brian J.
It was a nice day on Lake Erie for April – well, at least on the surface. Below, the water was dark and cold (34 degrees F, 1.11 degrees C). April is not typical dive season on Lake Erie. But there was a good weather day and we were heading out to set a buoy for the upcoming dive season. The task at hand was simple – locate the mooring line secured to the rudder post, attach a lift bag, and send it to the surface so the crew could attach the buoy. After that, the rest of the bottom time was ours to explore what we wanted.
In the wheelhouse of the dive boat, I could see the wreck below on the monitor. She rested about 50 feet (15 meters) off the port side of the dive boat. Time to get wet.
I splashed in the water and was immediately glad I was wearing thick insulation under my drysuit. The water was cold. After a quick gear check one last time, I descended below. The water was dark, but I was excited as this was the first dive of the season. I had an abundance of dives planned for the year – a deep week in North Carolina where all wrecks were deeper than 150 feet (46 meters), a few TBD East Coast dives with my good friend, Peter Hess, and weekends throughout the Great Lakes on some of the best wrecks in the world.
As I submerged I inflated my drysuit to control my descent. I was making good progress, gear was working well, and I was happily warm with the exception of my face. At approximately 70 feet of depth (21 meters) I began looking for the wreck. Since the wreck rises 40 feet (12 meters) off the bottom the wreck is usually spotted from an approximate depth of 50-60 feet (15-18 meters). I dropped further – 90 feet, 100 feet, 110 feet (27 meters, 30 meters, 34 meters).
At this point I started swimming towards the wreck and knew that at this depth I would eventually run into the wreck.
At 110 feet (34 meters) my mask began flooding. I didn’t know at the time, but there was a slight tear in my mask skirt. I tried to clear my mask, but the water just flooded back in. I hovered there at depth and tried to signal another diver in the water, but I was unable to do so. I saw the faint glow of a dive light in the distance, and then suddenly, it was gone. I again tried to clear my mask, but to no avail, the water kept pouring in.
I immediately started going through my checklist of emergency procedures.
My respirations became quick and shallow. I tried one last time to clear my mask, but the pressure at depth was too great to overcome and the water entered just as quickly as I purged it. My mask was broken.
As all deep wreck divers do, I carried an abundance of everything – three lights, extra reels, backup dive computers, extra bottom timer, multiple lift bags, etc. (As a side note, I was wearing double steel 95 tanks banded together with isolation manifold, but opted not to carry my 40cf deco bottle with 50% oxygen. Remember this for later.) I also had a spare mask in one of my drysuit pockets for situations just like this. I never had to use it, but I was glad I carried it on this dive.
I let the mask flood.
There was no use wasting more energy trying to clear the mask any longer. I thought the best thing for me to do was to orient myself since the water was so dark before I attempted a mask exchange at depth. However, before I oriented myself I needed to get my breathing rate lower as I was starting to breathe heavy. As I hovered at 110 feet (34 meters) below the surface, I closed my eyes and imagined my heart slowing and my lungs slowly filling and deflating. My pulse dropped and my respirations slowed.
Once my pulse and breathing rate returned to normal, I decided I was going to blow a lift bag. I inflated my wings slightly in order to ascend to 100 feet (30 meters). Once I reached the target depth I was going to inflate my bag. At a depth of 99 feet (30 meters), while I was reaching for one of my lift bags which was butt-mounted to my backplate, I suddenly flipped over and started plummeting towards the bottom of Lake Erie.
Before I could attempt to invert myself, I plunged into the bottom of the lake.
The good news was that I found the wreck. The bad news was that I was stuck upside down with fins pointing towards the surface, wedged between the wreck and the bottom.
I had some serious issues that needed immediate attention. Not only was my mask flooded, but now it was covered with mud, my manifold and tops of the tanks were buried in the muck, I was upside down, and I was stuck. My canister light (made for cave diving) flew out of my hands when I crashed into the bottom. Luckily the light head was still attached to the canister. I could see a faint glow a couple feet away. To make things worse I was breathing heavy. Too heavy. So heavy that I started to worry about not only running out of air, but also worried about deep water blackout.
For those unfamiliar with deep water black out, it is a condition that develops from short, quick breaths at depth – hyperventilating. If a diver continues to hyperventilate at depth, the diver will eventually “black out” from the lack of oxygen. This is why it is essential to optimize gas exchange at depth.
It is rather simple: if you black out, you drown.
I immediately checked my pressure gauge. Fuck! I can’t see the needle! The gauge was covered in mud. I wiped off the glass – nothing. Still couldn’t see with all the silt and thick, heavy particulate matter everywhere. I put the gauge up to my mask and still couldn’t read the needle. This was the first time I thought I was going to die.
I screamed again into my second stage. Fuck! I started to breathe heavy again. With water in my mask, mud on my mask, no light, the inability to see my pressure gauge, particulate matter floating everywhere in zero visibility, and an overwhelming amount of thoughts and information in my head, I started to get vertigo. My head was spinning.
At this point I started to get very light headed. Narcosis? On the verge of black out? Probably a little of both.
Deadly combination. I was in a daze. But I was immune to everything going on for a few minutes. I don’t remember being worried about being stuck, or the low viz, or not having my light, or my broken mask. I don’t remember having that overwhelming feeling anymore of not being able to extricate myself. At this point I accepted the fact that I was going to die.
I’m not sure how much time passed, but I started thinking about my family, all that I wanted to accomplish in life, the fact that I just beat cancer. I was suddenly overwhelmed with an adrenaline rush and told myself that I was going to do anything I could to get out of here – dead or alive – as long as I didn’t die stuck on the bottom.
I immediately worked on my breathing. I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself down. I knew I couldn’t read my air gauge and I was thankful for that. There is no way I could bear watching the needle drop to empty. That is pure mental torture.
There is probably some technical term for what I am going to describe, but I always called it 7-13-20 breathing. I had practiced it for years. If I was ever going to do it for real, it needed to be now. The premise is simple – inhale for 7 seconds, exhale for 13 seconds. This drops your respirations to 1 breath every 20 seconds, or 3 breaths per minute. Each time I inhaled I counted to 7 in my head: 1, 2, 3, 4…7. And every time I exhaled I counted to 13 in my head: 1, 2, 3, 4…13. Even though I couldn’t see anything, I did this with my eyes closed. It also helped that there was no noise at 127 feet (39 meters) below the surface. Complete isolation. I was able to concentrate.
My pulse dropped significantly. My respiration rate decreased dramatically. I needed optimal gas exchange to think clearly and to conserve the one thing that was most precious to me at that time – air.
Every breath I took was one step closer to death. I had little time to extricate myself. I tried inflating my wings. No luck. Didn’t budge. I tried inflating my drysuit. Nothing. I tried inflating both my drysuit and my buoyancy device at the same time and still didn’t move.
I was still upside down with my manifold buried in the mud. I tried digging behind my head and digging around my tanks. The viz, which was near zero, somehow got worse as all the particulate matter billowed up from my digging. I couldn’t get out.
I unbuckled my weight belt while simultaneously inflating my drysuit. Amazingly I still did not move. That’s when I knew I was really stuck and in trouble. If fully inflating my drysuit AND fully inflating my wings AND dropping my weight belt AND digging in the mud to extricate my tanks and manifold didn’t work, then there was only one other thing I could think of that might work.
This was by far extremely risky, but I knew I was in trouble. What’s that old saying about desperate times and desperate measures? If there ever was a time for me, this was definitely it. I decided I was going to remove my tanks.
I quickly but thoroughly rehearsed how I was going to do this at depth. It’s one thing to remove your tanks underwater during training in a pool. It’s one thing to remove your tanks and push them through a small opening in a wreck and then put them back on once through the restriction. I’ve done that before. But it’s quite another to remove your tanks while upside down with nowhere to go but up if you let go.
I loosened the waist strap of my harness. I thought maybe before I tried to pull my tanks off I might loosen the waist strap in order for one of my lift bags to swing free. I thought maybe I could shoot a bag to the surface. I couldn’t reach them due to the way I was stuck.
Since my waist strap was already off, I decided my Alamo would be to remove my tanks, try to invert myself while holding on for dear life (literally), and attempt to put the tanks back on.
Again, I’ve done it before, in an overhead environment, but never in a situation like this. I started taking off the shoulder straps. I was really nervous and concerned about being buoyant without the tanks and weight belt. The last thing I wanted to happen would be for me to get out of the harness only to be positively buoyant and any air that I had in my suit would go to my legs (since I was upside down). I would be like a flag on a flagpole holding on to my tanks while any positive buoyancy would want to take me straight to the surface. I decided this was a bad idea.
I put the tanks back on. I took a few breathes and then started digging around my tanks again. Silt was billowing everywhere. The viz was zero. I was running low on air. I really concentrated on breathing deep and slow…7…13…20.
I felt something against my tanks. Not quite sure what it was. I heard a metal on metal sound. Must have been my tanks against the wreck.
I broke free. Before I knew what was happening I could feel the buoyancy I had in my suit and wings lift me up. But there was a serious problem – I was heading towards the surface, fast.
I was rocketing towards the surface like an ICBM shot from a nuclear submarine. I was in grave danger. Instinctively, I grabbed my primary regulator and held it in my mouth while holding my secondary regulator in case the primary free flowed.
I knew I was going to get bent bad, if I even made it to the surface alive. I took a deep breath and kept talking to myself, Don’t hold your breath, don’t hold your breath. I was going faster and faster. I was waiting to feel what it was like for my lungs to explode. Exhale!
Before I could grab my knife to slice my drysuit to allow the water inside with the hope of slowing my rapid ascent, I was almost at the surface. Exhale!
Fuck! While waiting to feel what it was like to embolize, my mask turned red. Blood splattered on the inside lenses.
I couldn’t hear anything anymore – no rushing water, no expanding air trapped in my suit, not even the overpressure relief valve on my wings (which was working overtime). Both my eardrums just exploded.
I could see streaks of light through the blood in my mask. I knew I was getting close to the surface. I was still gaining momentum. Don’t hold your breath! Don’t hold your breath!
And suddenly….I broke the surface and was on my back.
Earlier I mentioned that I did not bring my 40cf tank with 50% oxygen. This point is key. There was a moment I wished I had that with me. One inhalation of 50% oxygen at that depth and it would have been over for me, or at least that’s what I was hoping. That’s right, I was going to purposefully give myself an oxygen toxicity hit in order to avoid me drowning and watching my needle settle on empty.
The maximum operating depth (MOD) for 50% oxygen at 1.6 PO2 is 70 feet. Anything deeper and that mixture would be toxic to me, at least in theory. I was hoping that one hit off that tank at almost twice that depth and it would have been immediate convulsions. Lights out. But, I didn’t bring my tank. I didn’t need it – somewhat shallow dive with double 95s. I wasn’t planning on a decompression dive. My dive plan was such that I had more than enough air to accomplish my dive with double 95s.
Why would I purposefully kill myself by inducing an oxygen toxicity hit?
I vividly remember thinking one thought on the bottom: people say “he died doing what he loved”. I’ve heard it for years about divers specifically, we all have. “Well, at least he went out doing what he loved”. That’s all bullshit. From someone who has been there (on the brink of death underwater) and having survived that nightmare. That’s no way to go.
So again, why would I purposefully induce an ox-tox hit? Well, at that time, it would have been easier to induce an ox-tox hit than to suffer the mental terror of watching my needle drop to zero and then drowning while I had my mental capacity. Can you imagine what it’s like to drown? Unfortunately, I can. It’s not fun. It’s horrific. So, at that time, the choice for me was easy. This was all predicated on the fact that I could not free myself. Fortunately, I didn’t have to make that choice (although I knew what I was going to do) because I did not have the tank with me.
My decision to not enter the hyperbaric chamber paid off. I was lucky. The tetany in my hands and arms, the pain in my joints, and the paralysis I had from the waist down dissipated over the course of a few days. After being at depth for 51 mins, I had a decompression obligation of 80 mins. I did nothing. Time and oxygen were my treatment. I was on supplemental oxygen for a couple days and then resumed breathing ambient air.
I walked out of the hospital (slowly) a few days later with a cane – very stylish for a 24 year old. For most of the next month I had to use the cane for mobility. My strength slowly returned.
My eardrums took a long time to heal. My right ear healed well, but I had a difficult time hearing out of my left ear for the next three weeks. (Yes, I was still mad at the doctor for piercing my eardrums that second time).
Prior to my discharge a doctor told me an embolus (air bubble – remember shaken Coke can in your bloodstream?) flowed into my heart and stopped it. Lucky for me, the embolus passed. No one was sure how long I was officially dead, but this explains the tunnel and the bright white light.
I lived literally four houses from Lake Erie. The Lake was constantly calling my name. I looked at the water everyday. I heard the waves crashing each night. I didn’t know if I would or could dive ever again. The consensus at the hospital was that I was extremely lucky to have survived. Actually, extremely lucky is a drastic understatement.
It took me over a year to get back in the water.
Finally, after a tremendous amount of mental preparedness I was ready to make the big dive to the bottom of a pool. My dear friend, Joe Steffen, arranged a free indoor pool for me to use late at night when nobody was around.
At first the noise of the exhaust bubbles freaked me out and I surfaced immediately. The last time I heard and saw my bubbles underwater was when I was fighting for my life. The sound took me right back to the wreck. PTSD. After a talk from Joe and some mental rehearsal I was able to submerge. Hell, I was in a pool after all – what could go wrong? I was in less than 10 feet of water, I told myself.
I figured the best thing to do was to start with the basics – emergency drills, doffing and donning my mask underwater, switching regulators, turning air on and off underwater, hovering, buoyancy, and most importantly, just breathing. We even did emergency air ascents (even though I successfully ascended from 127 feet (39 meters) on one breath of air). Joe and I finished with complete gear swaps underwater while buddy breathing.
After a couple pool sessions I felt I needed a “check dive” at a quarry. I made my way out to Gilboa Quarry – the legendary Midwest 14-plus acre quarry. The quarry is great as it offered a tremendous amount of different sites with maximum depths over 130 feet (40 meters). I tested my buoyancy inside the sunken school bus and the Grumman Gulf Stream Twin Turbo Prop plane. I felt nervous, but it was great to be back in a wreck again.
I finally came full circle and started diving the well preserved wrecks in Lake Erie again in the summer. I started with my three favorites in Lake Erie’s Central Basin – the sunken tug Admiral, the three-masted schooner-barge Dundee, and the schooner-barge Little Wissahickon.
Success. The horrific nightmares I had been having on a nightly basis since the accident suddenly disappeared.
It was extremely difficult seeing myself drown every night.
I needed to get back in the water and wreck diving was the cure. Lake Erie can be a cruel mistress but I had to prove to myself that I could dive again.
All was well until tragedy struck once more. Joe Steffen, my dear friend and dive partner who had been so instrumental in getting me back in the water, suffered an embolism and died while on an expedition in Canada in 2007. He hadn’t been as deep as I had on his fateful dive. I will never forget the phone call I received to let me know Joe was gone – I was grocery shopping with my oldest son. The phone call ended with “you’re lucky you survived”. Yes, I was. That is another story for another time.
Again, if you do it enough and you do it long enough, it becomes a matter of when, not if, something happens. Yes, luck may play a part in it, but it all comes down to how well you can control your emotions, your mental state, and making sure you stay calm and not enter the panic cycle. Once you get in the cycle it’s difficult to get out, if not damn near impossible. At that point, evolution and ancestral instincts take over. It’s imperative to break the cycle otherwise “fight or flight” can kill you underwater. Seconds count below the surface and sometimes all you need is one to make the difference between someone telling you my story, and me telling it to you.
“Don’t jump in the water unless you are prepared not to come back from it”
– Tony Maffatone, died while diving the USS San Diego, 02 Aug 2000
We are running this story in three parts. Part I is here and Part II is here. In Part I, Erik sets the tone with two underwater rescues he experienced and in Part II he describes his rescue from this particular dive in Part III. You won’t want to miss it. Like us on Facebook to follow all our adventures. – 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. Visit ShipWrecksofLakeErie.com for more information or to buy Erik’s books.