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25 Years Later, Memories of Shark Attack Remain Vivid

November 20, 1996|PETE THOMAS

It happened 25 years ago, but the image of sharks savagely attacking his diving partner and dragging him to the hazy depths of the Caribbean is as vivid in Bret Gilliam's mind today as it was in the days after the attack.

Gilliam wishes he could forget.

Telling the story in its entirety for the first time, in a chilling article written for Scuba Times magazine, he describes that fateful day in the Virgin Islands.

Gilliam, now editor of the Advanced Diving Journal and president of Technical Diving International, was with Rod Temple and Robbie McIlvaine on a scientific expedition to recover samples for a research project being conducted at Cane Bay on the island of St. Croix's north shore.

The plan was to inspect and photograph the deepest project, at 210 feet, located on the wall of a steep drop-off. Temple was the dive leader and timekeeper, in charge of the paperwork and running the decompression schedule during the ascent.

But for him, there would be no ascent.

"I watched his lifeless body drift into the abyss with the sharks still hitting him," Gilliam writes.

And many believe that the hurried ascent made by Gilliam--from 400 feet with practically no air in his tanks--should have killed him.


Veterans of hundreds of deep dives, Gilliam, Temple and McIlvaine made their way down the wall at Cane Bay. They eventually reached the collection project--set during a previous dive--at 210 feet. As Gilliam and McIlvaine worked, Temple looked around. He spotted two white-tip sharks, one about 12 feet and the other a bit bigger, swimming in the distance.

"This was nothing new to us, as we dove with sharks routinely," Gilliam says. "But it was rare to see these open-ocean species so close to shore."

After finishing their work, McIlvaine started up first. He spotted the sharks again, swimming over the coral and down a sandy chute.

But the sharks didn't seem to be paying attention to the divers, which in itself Gilliam thought odd because he had had "nasty encounters" with white-tips before while diving farther offshore.

"Our plan called for Rod to be the last guy up," Gilliam writes. "I rendezvoused with Robbie at about 175 feet just over a ledge, and we both rested on the coral to wait for him to join us. He was late, and Robbie fidgeted, pointing to his pressure gauge, not wanting to run low on air.

"I shrugged and gave him a 'What am I supposed to do?' look, and we continued to wait. Suddenly, Robbie dropped his extra gear and catapulted himself toward the wall pointing at a mass of bubble exhaust coming from the deeper water.

"We both figured that Rod had had some sort of air failure. . . . Since my air consumption was lower, I decided to send Robbie up, and I would go see if Rod needed help. As I descended into the bubble cloud, Robbie gave me an anxious OK sign and started up.

"But when I reached Rod, things were about as bad as they could get."

A 12-foot white-tip shark had bitten into Temple's left thigh and was tearing violently at his flesh. Clouds of blood mixed in with the bubbles. The second shark appeared and made a blinding strike, ripping into Temple's calf.

Gilliam grabbed Temple by his shoulder harness and tried to pull him free. Both divers beat at the sharks with their fists, and the sharks finally let go, but only briefly.

They returned, bypassing Gilliam and striking Temple's bleeding legs. Temple had lost lots of blood and Gilliam felt Temple's body go limp in his arms. But he held on, and the divers and the sharks tumbled downward until the sharks finally ripped Temple from Gilliam's grasp, leaving Gilliam 400 feet beneath the surface, in shock and practically out of air.

"My depth gauge was pegged at 325 feet, but I knew we were far deeper than that," he recalls. "The grimness of my own situation forced itself on me through a fog of narcosis and exertion.

"That's when I ran out of air. I think that subconsciously I almost decided to stay there and die. It seemed so totally helpless, and my strength was completely sapped. But I put my head back and put all my muscles into a wide steady power kick for the surface.

"I forced all thoughts to maintaining that kick cycle and willed myself upward. After what seemed like an eternity, I sneaked a look at my depth gauge and it was still pegged at 325 feet. I sucked hard on the regulator and got a bit of a breath. Not much, but it fueled my oxygen-starved brain a bit longer, and I prayed my legs would get me up shallow enough to get another breath before hypoxia [an abnormal condition caused by a decrease in oxygen to body tissue] shut down my systems forever.

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