Loss of Daniel Harrington
November 24 2007
On Saturday Nov 24th I received a phone call from the dive shop where I
work part time that a diver had been reported missing from Diver’s Choice
charters while diving the wreck of the Cape Breton. He said the victim was a
guy named Danny. It didn’t register because I have never called Daniel that.
I asked the last name and knew right then even though I have been battling a
never ending cold, I better get my dive gear together. I spoke with Ken from
the charter that night and was told the RCMP were on the case but in the event
they don’t find him we should be ready to dive. I called up some friends who
are all experienced cave and wreck divers and asked if they would participate
in a search mission on the Cape Breton. Everyone said they would.
For those who don’t know, before the Speigel Grove was sunk the Cape was the largest artificial reef in the world. It is a support ship 440 ft long, similar to the liberty ship design used during WWII. For the most part the wreck is fairly benign with plenty of cutouts and swim-throughs along the main passageways and since the main engine has been removed the engine room is a big wide-open area for divers to descend through the skylights to the bowels of the ship. Because of the open appearance of these areas, many divers including myself tend to take diving this wreck with a very cavalier attitude.
Daniel and his girlfriend were both wreck trained to the limitations of PADI wreck diver and he had some further tech training. On that fateful dive Daniel had a set of doubles with 30% NTX a stage of 40 % NTX for deco. Candace had a single 100cuft of 30% NTX and a stage of 40% NTX as well. They entered the wreck though the engine room at the top and swam to the bottom where they exited it at approximately 140 ft. They found a hole near the bottom and went in then exited it immediately. They then proceeded up the stern to the first opening at about 128 ft and entered the wreck again in 3 deck door and seemed to go down a level to 138ft. They then went up a level and went forward until they came to a room that Candace described as a very short room with curved walls. They decided to turn around because there was at least a foot of rust and silt on the deck and the large rusticles on the ceiling were being knocked off by their bubbles. Vis was deteriorating rapidly. For some reason Daniel chose to switch places with Candace and lead the way out. She reports as they were making the exit she could not even see his fin until it knocked against her mask. That was the last contact she had with him. She then had to feel her way around until she found a hatch leading up and took the exit. Once in clear water she began to look for him but after a few minutes and realizing her deco was racking up she decided she needed help and headed up.
After reaching the charter boat Ken (the boat operator) and another diver entered the water to perform a search. They reported seeing no bubbles rising from the wreck and since neither were trained or equipped wisely decided not to make victims of themselves. They search the perimeter of the wreck and peered in every available opening but without success.
Initially the Coast Guard dive team was brought in then shortly after the RCMP took over. In spite of my earlier frustration these guys are top-notch. They did what their protocols require and did the best they could within their guidelines. They also recognized a group of technical divers on rebreathers were much better suited to the search than themselves and had the humility to step back and let us in. They publicly announced in the newspaper that the wreck would be open to sport diving on Friday which gave us time to do our stuff. We came across Daniel on our second search of the stern even after being told by both the RCMP and a local dive shop owner that the stern had been thoroughly searched and cleared and we should be looking at the forward end I listened to my gut and conducted the search back aft. I had the benefit of a very precise account from Candace of where she thought they had been and some other data to base that decision on. In fact we found him less than 10 feet from where she thought they were when she last saw him.
Lessons for life:
Sheck Exley in “Blueprint for Survival” gave us some very consistent common mistakes that lead to the death of cave divers. Some of us use the memory phrase, “Thank God All Divers Live” and it stands for Training, Guidelines, Air, Depth, and Lights. In virtually every overhead fatality (barring medical event) one or more of these protocols are violated. I think we can all agree at least 2 or 3 were missing on this dive. There is one other factor not evident in this report and if I may apply a little conjecture I would like to say what I believe happened although we will never know for sure.
Daniel was found 10ft further into the wreck than he was last seen. It appears that upon losing sight of Candace he turned back to look for her and maybe entered the “curved” room. What Candace described as a curved room puzzled me at first because I have spent lots of time on that ship both above and below the surface and don’t recall a low ceiling curved wall room anywhere on that ship. When we were searching I found the "curved room". At that point I was 6 ft away from the body and did not know it. I had to turn my dive due to a fouled reel and so I had the other team recheck that room just for completeness. The curved room turned out to be ceiling panels that were still attached at one end but had fallen creating something like a lobster trap, much easier to get into than out. The other factor that bears looking at is, look at the depth and the gas they were breathing. I believe their mix was way too hot for the depths they encountered and I am not a doctor but I believe CNS toxicity should not be ruled out given the high stress he was under and the mix he was breathing.
Daniel was a very capable diver who loved life and loved the sport of diving. He like many of us who get lulled into complacency take more chances than we should. Some of us squeak through these events and promise ourselves never to do it again and thereby become better divers. Those who don’t get away with it can still benefit the dive community at large if the lessons for life are passed on and not held back due to sensitivity for the bereaved. I know Daniel would want these facts to come out. He was very open in admitting his screw-ups and I am confident he would approve of this candid look at his last dive.
We’ll miss you buddy.