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State takes heat over 2 diver deaths

A routine inspection in the California Aqueduct goes awry. The cause of the fatalities isn't clear. Industry experts say the men were ill-equipped.

February 10, 2007|Eric Bailey | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — State officials suspended operations of an elite dive team and fended off criticism Friday after a mysterious tragedy left two scuba divers dead during a routine underwater maintenance inspection in the California Aqueduct's inky depths.

Tim Crawford and Martin Alvarado were supposed to remain in the turbid, debris-strewn water less than half an hour to examine the steel grates that protect the mammoth intakes of a pumping plant near Los Banos.

When they failed to surface as anticipated and a co-worker on shore put out a call for help, the closest backup diver was 18 miles away, according to investigators.

The two men, both veterans of the California Department of Water Resources 13-member dive team, were dead by the time they were pulled from the water Wednesday.

Investigators with the California Highway Patrol said there was air left in their tanks and no signs of the sort of outward trauma that might have occurred had they been pinned against the steel grates by the force of water being siphoned into the pumps.

Only one of the six pumps was left in operation, and the men were supposed to stay at least 50 feet from it. Their goal was to search for invasive quagga mussels that could pose a threat to the water system.

But somehow, roughly 30 feet underwater in a difficult aquatic environment where visibility can shrink to inches and obstacles can include animal carcasses and junked cars, the pair found themselves fighting for life.

Authorities have conducted autopsies but don't anticipate any results until toxicology tests are concluded later this month.

As news of the tragedy spread, commercial diving experts criticized the state for deploying divers without equipment considered the industry standard.

"I'm sorry to say this probably could have been avoided," said Phil Newsum, executive director of the Assn. of Diving Contractors International.

Crawford, 56, and Alvarado, 44, were outfitted in high-quality scuba gear -- masks, wetsuits and tanks -- and tethered together by a "buddy" line as required under the state's diving policies and procedures, a 10-page document drawn up in 1986. A shoreline tender stood ready to assist but without any scuba gear.

Newsum and other commercial diving experts say diving in such conditions -- with virtually zero visibility, numerous potential obstacles and the merciless tug of giant pumps -- calls for greater safety precautions and better gear.

Commercial offshore divers routinely wear hardened helmets tethered by air hoses and a communications cable to the shoreline. They also carry auxiliary air tanks on their backs. If trouble crops up, they can alert those on shore and a safety diver can come after them, following their air hoses.

Despite the inherent dangers, the industry has a good track record. In the last 18 months, Newsum said, four commercial divers have died in the U.S., a ratio of 1 death for every 55,000 dives.

John Ritter, president of Seattle-based Dive Commercial International, speculated that the tragedy may have been caused by the divers venturing too close to the pump that was running and getting pulled against the metal grates or by bad air in their tanks.

As a tank is filled with compressed air, precautions need to be taken to ensure that the carbon monoxide exhaust from a gasoline-powered compressor isn't inadvertently drawn in, he said.

Ritter said the ill-fated divers should not have been using scuba gear.

"There's a big advantage to scuba as far as mobility, but there's too many disadvantages as far as air supply and no communication," Ritter said. "There's been so many cases where a scuba diver struggles to get free from a snag, his regulator is ripped from his mouth, he panics and drowns."

State officials said members of the dive team, which before Wednesday's tragedy had never suffered a fatality in three decades of operation, were upset by the criticism but unwilling amid their grief to field questions from reporters.

"They take very seriously the work they do and are very proud," said Nancy Saracino, chief deputy director of the Department of Water Resources. "To have others who were not there or not familiar with our processes or have other agendas pass aspersions is very upsetting to them."

The group, which has suspended all operations during an investigation into the accident, is made up of a variety of department employees -- some engineers, some utility workers. Each member makes up to five dives a month on a voluntary basis, and the average experience is about a decade, said Sue Sims, a department spokeswoman.

They have top-of-the-line scuba equipment, well-suited to the work they do -- brief stints that require maneuverability in shallow water, Sims said. If conditions dictate, the department hires commercial divers with shore-supplied gear, she said.

"They are down there to inspect, not install equipment or repair broken facilities," Sims said. "Those are things for which we'd hire commercial divers."

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