Diving helmet inventor drowns

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Posted by on June 30, 2005 at 07:43:19:

Terrytown man in boating accident

A 73-year-old Terrytown man who invented a widely used scuba diving helmet in the 1960s drowned Saturday in a boating accident near the mouth of the Mississippi River, authorities said.

George Swindell, an experienced offshore diver involved in early oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, drowned after he and two fishing partners were thrown overboard about 1 p.m. when their 20-foot boat capsized in choppy waters about five miles west of South Pass, said Scott Polk, a Plaquemines Parish coroner's investigator.

The other two men, George "Mark" Bezou, 60, of Kenner, and Charles Kennen, 58, of Gretna, clung to the overturned boat for more than an hour before they were rescued by members of a crewboat, Polk said.

The three men were returning from a fishing trip to the Seven Mile rigs when they encountered stiff winds and rough seas, Bezou said. The motor stalled as the boat began to take on water from 5-foot waves, he said.

"I yelled, 'Grab your life jacket! We're sinking!' " said Bezou, who owns the Sunbird deep-sea boat. "We all ran to the side of the boat where the life jackets were kept, which caused the boat to flip and toss us into the water."

Kennen grabbed onto a hook attached to the overturned boat's hull. Bezou struggled to keep his head above water as Swindell grabbed him around the waist, the two survivors said in phone interviews Wednesday.

"He kept pulling me under," Bezou said. "I went under so many times and swallowed so much water that I considered myself dead."

But he said Kennen reached out and pulled him to the boat with Swindell still hanging onto him.

"I kept telling him to let go of me and grab the boat," Bezou said. "Then he just sort of relaxed his grip and started floating away facedown in the water."

Bezou and Kennen said they thought Swindell had died of a heart attack and decided it was fruitless to risk death to go after him.

After rescuing Bezou and Kennen, members of the crewboat searched for Swindell and found him floating facedown in the water, unconscious. He was taken to the Coast Guard station in Venice, where he was pronounced dead on arrival, Polk said.

Polk said the death has been preliminarily classified as an accidental drowning, pending results from toxicology tests.

News that Swindell had drowned came as a shock to friends, who described him as an accomplished swimmer and diver.

"For this to happen to such an experienced diver, it just doesn't add up," family friend George Dunn said, adding that Swindell was one of the original volunteer divers at the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. "He was getting up there in years. Maybe he had a heart attack."

Swindell became a licensed scuba instructor in 1954 and was foreman of a dive team involved in exploring the Gulf for oil in the 1960s, said Jeffrey Haupt, the son of Swindell's longtime girlfriend, Claudia Haupt.

"He was a pioneer in the fledgling diving industry that exploded along with oil exploration in the Gulf," he said.

Concerned about the serious, and sometimes fatal, head injuries suffered by divers wearing just scuba masks, Swindell invented a fiberglass diving helmet and founded Advanced Diving Equipment in Gretna to manufacture it. The Swindell Helmet became popular because it was lightweight and could be adjusted to fit various hat sizes.

"He has gotten letters from people who say they still wear his helmets to this day, including a guy who inspects sewers in New York," Haupt said. "I took him to a diving convention in New Orleans about 10 years ago and it was like being with Bill Gates. Everyone was swarming around us trying to talk to him."

While his invention was credited with reducing injuries and even saving lives, his friends found it ironic that something as simple as a life jacket could have saved his life.

"We were a bunch of old fools out there without our life jackets," Bezou said. "It'll never happen again, but unfortunately it's too late for George."

A veteran of World War II and the Korean War, Swindell enlisted in the military at age 15 after telling recruiters he was 18, Haupt said. He said Swindell's driver's license still lists his birth year as 1928, instead of the correct 1931.

"He said it was something he had to do. He had to serve his country," Haupt said. "He was a paratrooper in Germany. It turned out to be just one adventure in a remarkable, enormous life."

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