Diver ignored safety protocols, investigators say

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Posted by on August 22, 2005 at 15:30:46:

In Reply to: Diver Who Drowned Ignored Basic Safety Procedures posted by on August 22, 2005 at 15:22:11:

Technical diving instructor Shane Thompson (left) and Joe Esparza, owner of San Diego Divers Supply, took a grate to close off a section of the Yukon, the sunken warship where Steven Donathan died June 25 in an area previously secured from divers.
In 2000, Jay Meissner (right) and Dirk Simonoski of Germany visited the wreck of the Yukon, an underwater attraction for divers off Mission Beach.

A veteran San Diego scuba diver who drowned June 25 while exploring a sunken ship did not follow basic safety procedures, an investigation has concluded.

Scuba instructor Steven Oliver Donathan, 49, of Ocean Beach, put himself in jeopardy when he did not mark his route with a guide line and abandoned his diving partner to enter the ship's boiler room, a previously sealed compartment that is off-limits to divers.

The breaches of safety protocol are detailed in a 20-page death investigation report prepared by San Diego police with assistance from lifeguard divers.

The report concludes that Donathan died inside the Yukon, a former Canadian warship lying in 105 feet of water 1.85 miles off Mission Beach, "as the result of a diving accident for which he was solely responsible."

Donathan's death is the first to occur inside the Yukon, the site of more than 10,000 dives since it became an underwater attraction five years ago.

Investigators believe Donathan became disoriented after his movements inside the silt-filled boiler room caused zero-visibility conditions. Bubbles hitting the ship's decks and walls probably loosened rust and grime from above, while Donathan's swim fins stirred up a cloud of fine silt. His ability to find an exit was further hampered by the failure of his primary light, which had flooded.

Most divers who enter caves or sunken ships mark their route by using a guide line, a string that unwinds from a reel. Although Donathan had the safety equipment with him, he did not use it.

Unable to locate the narrow passageway, the only access to the boiler room, Donathan ran out of air 74 minutes into the dive.

The boiler room had been sealed because it contains exposed pipes, catwalks and narrow corridors that could cause divers to become stuck or entangled. The compartment is 42 feet wide and about 60 feet long.

Diving inside the Yukon can be disorienting because the ship is lying on its port side at an angle, creating an illusion that makes walls appear as if they were the ceiling.

Lt. Nick Lerma, dive team leader for the San Diego Lifeguard Service, said a review of the report leads him to conclude that Donathan was "overconfident" and put himself in danger unnecessarily.

"If you're looking for a safety message, it's this: The basic safety rules of scuba diving apply to you regardless of how experienced you are," Lerma said.

The San Diego Oceans Foundation, a nonprofit group that brought the 366-foot-long warship to San Diego, is studying how it can make it impossible for divers to ever again enter the boiler room, said Dick Long, the foundation's former president.

The room was welded shut before the Yukon was sunk July 14, 2000, to become a recreational site for scuba divers.

Donathan was training a student during the dive that killed him. He told friends he was doing a "wreck interior problem exercise at 80 feet" that would include a drill in which the student's air is turned off and his mask dislodged.

Once inside the wreck, Donathan swam down a series of narrowing passageways leading to the Yukon's boiler room. About 25 minutes into the dive, Donathan entered a passageway that was too narrow for his student to follow.

The student, 46-year-old Joseph Dangelmaier of Carlsbad, told investigators that he tried to signal to Donathan that he couldn't proceed any farther, but Donathan continued.

When the two men became separated, Dangelmaier searched briefly for Donathan, then exited the ship and waited outside for 15 minutes. He went to the surface when Donathan did not return. Dangelmaier is an 11-year veteran diver who hired Donathan to teach him more advanced techniques.

The two men had completed 10 dives together and had been separated on at least four occasions without any problems.

Becoming separated from a "dive buddy" is a violation of safety procedures for recreational divers, but it was not considered crucial to Donathan, who specialized in solo diving, Dangelmaier told police.

Steve Haynes, a lawyer and former president of the San Diego Council of Divers, reviewed the death report and said he is puzzled that Donathan abandoned his student.

"Not diving with a buddy who would have stuck with him when he was going into that restricted area made it certain that, if a problem developed, Steve would have to solve it by himself," Haynes said.

"I don't think there are a lot of instructors who would think Steve made the right choice when he went on without checking to see if his student was following," said Haynes, who is a diving instructor. "Both parties (student and instructor) should have known what was going on."

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