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Scuba divers drowned, Florida autopsy finds

Three ran out of air as they explored a wreck off Key Largo.

March 20, 2007|From the South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. — The three New Jersey scuba divers who died while exploring a wreck off Key Largo drowned, according to autopsies completed Monday.

Monroe County Medical Examiner's Office chief investigator Michael Bates said "saltwater drowning" was the cause of death for Jonathan Walsweer, 38, and Scott Stanley, 55, of Westfield, N.J.; and Kevin Coughlin, 51, of Chatham Borough, N.J. The three men ran out of air during a 135-foot dive inside the U.S. warship Spiegel Grove on Friday, investigators said.

A fourth diver, Howard Spialter, 52, also of Westfield, survived. According to information he gave investigators, the other three might have survived if they had followed his path out of the wreck, but they chose a different direction. Spialter told investigators with the Monroe County Sheriff's Office that the four men, all experienced divers, got lost inside the wreck. Besides Spialter, another diver eventually managed to escape, but died later.

Expert divers who recovered the two remaining bodies Saturday said the men were in a tough spot, about 90 feet from the nearest exit. That section of the wreck was supposed to be off-limits.

Spialter said that as he ran low on air, he tried unsuccessfully to lead the others in a particular direction, according to Sheriff's Detective Mark Coleman.

"He went one way and they went the other," Coleman said in a statement. "He lived because he went the right way and got out."

At one point, Coughlin also figured out how to escape the maze-like ship and was able to surface. He died afterward at Mariner's Hospital in Tavernier.

"We don't know what happened with him," Coleman said in the statement. "Either he ran out of air before he got out, or he may have embolized in a section of the wreck where there is a long, steep ascent on the way out. We just don't know ... we may never know the whole story."

A diver is said to embolize when gas bubbles enter the bloodstream, causing potentially serious blockages.

Six people have died while diving the Spiegel Grove, a 1960s-era warship sunk off the Upper Keys in 2002 to create an artificial reef.

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