Top diver perishes on mission of gallantry

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Posted by on January 14, 2005 at 08:22:08:

In Reply to: Australian diver's body recovered in South Africa posted by on January 12, 2005 at 22:46:26:

Johannesburg — An extreme-diving tale that has riveted South Africa for days ended with a ghostly coda on Wednesday, when a weird mix of fluke and physics brought the bodies of two divers, believed lost forever, floating up from the bottom of one of the world's deepest freshwater caves.

Dave Shaw, an Australian airline pilot who held world deep-diving records, made a carefully planned descent last Saturday to Boesmansgat cave in the Northern Cape.

His goal was to retrieve the body of Deon Dreyer, who had died in the cave 10 years ago at the age of 20.

But in a twist that stunned the deep-diving enthusiasts watching the event, the 50-year-old Mr. Shaw, one of the best technical divers in the world, ran into trouble.

The five minutes he was meant to spend at the bottom of the cave, at 271 metres, elapsed with no sign of him. The sixth emergency minute ticked by.

Then his backup diver, Don Shirley, shot up, already violently ill with decompression sickness, with a dive slate bearing the words “Dave's not coming back.”

Mr. Dreyer's family had been waiting at the water's edge with their minister, planning a few quiet minutes with their son's skeletal remains, but instead the scene was suddenly one of panic and horror.

It soon became clear that Mr. Shaw had perished at the bottom of the cave, the third deepest freshwater cave in the world.

He had been emphatic, though, saying that if anything was to happen to him on the dive, no attempt was to be made to bring his body up.

“If something goes wrong, leave me down there,” Mr. Shaw is reported to have told his dive buddies shortly before starting Saturday's descent.

And so it fell to his friends to call his wife in Hong Kong and two children in Australia to tell them he would not be coming back.

Deon Dreyer sank to the bottom of the cave when he lost consciousness during a dive there in 1994. Mr. Shaw found Mr. Dreyer's body on Oct. 28, totally by chance, when his flashlight caught a glimmer of gear in the pitch-black cave. Mr. Shaw was near the bottom of the 282-metre-deep Boesmansgat, in a successful attempt to set a depth record at 271 metres.

It took him about 25 minutes to get to the bottom, and more than five hours to get back up. Divers must make the ascent slowly to avoid potentially fatal decompression sickness.

Within minutes of getting out of the water, though, Mr. Shaw was on the phone to Mr. Dreyer's parents, whom he had never met, pledging to retrieve their son's body for them.

“I'm doing this now so that the family can get on with their lives,” he said a few days before last week's ill-fated dive.

Elaborate preparations were made for the dive, with dress rehearsals and with cylinders of oxygen stationed all along the route. Mr. Shaw was to arrive at Mr. Dreyer's body at 263 metres, roll a body bag onto the lower half, then cut the skeleton free of the diving gear, pull the rest of the bag over the body, and begin to haul it up to the 220-metre mark for handover to Mr. Shirley.

Mr. Shirley knew something was wrong when Mr. Shaw did not return to the 220-metre mark after a maximum six minutes, as planned. He risked his life to go down to 250 metres but could see no sign of Mr. Shaw, for whom he was “Robin to his Batman.”

He had to turn back when his breathing apparatus started to fail. He began to vomit and was overcome by dizziness on his ascent, but is expected to make a full recovery.

At that point, Mr. Dreyer's family accepted that their son's body would never be recovered.

But on Wednesday afternoon, surviving members of Mr. Shaw's technical diving team (those who are spaced out along a deep-dive route to support the deep diver) went back to the cave for the grim task of retrieving equipment, such as extra diving cylinders, that had been left behind when Saturday's dive went so badly awry.

Petrus Roux and Peter Herbst went down to 100 metres and tied an inflatable buoy to the main line running up from the cave bottom. (Mr. Shaw had tied the cave line to Mr. Dreyer's body last year, with the intention of one day returning to retrieve it.) It appears that Mr. Shaw's body was entangled with the main line, and as the buoy pulled it up, the oxygen in his body expanded, making him lighter and drawing him up until his body was wedged against the underwater roof of the cave. It was eventually retrieved at 36 metres.

In a bizarre twist, Mr. Dreyer's body, meanwhile, was pulled up by the force of all this expanding oxygen, and was retrieved dangling a few metres below Mr. Shaw's.

When Mr. Herbst surfaced with the gear, police divers assisting him said they had been trying to attract his attention with lights, because they could see the bodies rising up behind him as he ascended. He and Mr. Roux then descended again to bring the bodies of the two men up.

Dive team members said a recovered video camera, worn by Mr. Shaw, showed him running into trouble, possibly getting tangled in the line.

“On the tape you can hear Dave breathing. Harder and harder and harder. Then there's silence,” Mr. Herbst told the Johannesburg Star moments after leaving the cave for the final time.

“It's much too soon to say exactly what went wrong, but, from the bit of footage I've just seen, it appears that Dave was working too hard.

“At first it looks like everything was going fine. He'd got to the body and he was working [but] it looks as if he ran out of time. It looks like he tried to give up and get out, but he got entangled in the cave line. He kept trying to cut the line, but he couldn't. He was breathing faster and faster.”

Deep cave diving lures its fans with what some describe as “velvet blackness.” Unlike ocean diving, there is total silence, stillness and engulfing darkness. The deepest inland cave in the world is in Mexico, followed by one in France.

On Saturday, Mr. Herbst told reporters that “as long as there are deep holes, there will be people like us who want to explore them. ... Dave was drawn to the adventure aspect of diving. Like other crazy people who dive, he wanted to go where other people haven't been before. Dave died with his boots on.”

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