Adventurer was unafraid to push limits

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Posted by on August 22, 2005 at 15:34:49:

In Reply to: Diver ignored safety protocols, investigators say posted by on August 22, 2005 at 15:30:46:

Steven Donathan was an underwater explorer, so confident in the ocean's depths that his friends used to joke he had gills instead of lungs.

So those who knew Donathan were stunned his life would end on the Yukon, a Canadian warship purposely sunk in 100 feet of water off San Diego's coast to be a kind of diver's Disneyland.

"It would embarrass Steve that he died on the Yukon," said Vicky Samuel, Donathan's companion for 10 years. "He'd much rather die at 300 feet listening to H2 Audio (an underwater music system Donathan was testing)."

Donathan, 49, was loved by some and loathed by others for his cocksure attitude. He was among a small group of highly trained divers and believed in "taking diving to the limits and beyond," as he wrote on his Web site.

On June 25, he pushed into the Yukon's boiler room, an area of the wreck welded shut because of its danger but somehow pried open. His body was found tangled in pipes there two days later.

"Does it seem a bit strange? Yes," said Shane Thompson, who gave Donathan his first diving lessons in 1999. "He's a very calm and competent diver. It's strange he got taken out by a ship he dove many, many times."

Donathan's death spurred hundreds of postings on a divers' Internet message board expressing grief, surprise and caution.

"This was simply a tragic and so avoidable death," one wrote. "You need some ego to do the types of dives that we do. But that needs to be tempered with a healthy dose of reality as well."

A risk-taker

Even as a boy growing up in La Mesa, Donathan had difficulty conforming. He dropped out of Grossmont High School in the 11th grade, although he earned his General Educational Development diploma while in the Job Corps the next year.

"He didn't much care for school," said his father, David Donathan. "He was kind of a contrarian. He wouldn't submit to rules."

Donathan enlisted in the Air Force but didn't like being assigned to the military police. His father said he squabbled with his superiors about a reassignment until they agreed to give him an honorable discharge after just nine months in the military.

"They gave it to him instead of arguing with him," his father said.

Donathan was divorced with a son when he met Samuel in Colorado in 1995. They returned to San Diego four years later because Donathan missed being away from the ocean.

Donathan, who worked as a floor installer, began taking diving lessons in fall 1999. The sport became an obsession, and he received 20 diving certificates over the next two years.

"He just fell in love with diving," said Thompson, who kept in touch with Donathan after his diving lessons. "He had a hunger for it."

Most of the people involved in the sport are recreational divers, content to go no deeper than 130 feet below the ocean's surface. Donathan was part of a small group of technical divers who might go several hundred feet below the surface and use mixed gases in their tanks instead of compressed air.

"He was known as an adventurer. He was an explorer," said Derek Tarr, president of the San Diego Council of Divers. "The tendency is those types of divers get into more risky situations."

While recreational divers rely on a buddy system, technical divers are known to strike out on their own. It takes hours to plan the risky deep dives, which involve several decompression stops to allow the diver's body to adjust as they ascend.

Two years ago, Donathan opened a dive shop in Point Loma and later moved the shop to Ocean Beach. He specialized in teaching the advanced techniques of technical diving. Finances were constantly a problem, his family said.

"It was more a passion than a profitable business for him," David Donathan said.

With his lined, leathery face and long hair tied in a ponytail, Donathan became a well-recognized figure in the diving community. He was usually spotted with a cheap cigarette in his mouth and a cup of Starbucks coffee in his hand.

He was gregarious, animated and somewhat of a flirt, friends said. He could also be blunt and argumentative.

"You could roll over him with a truck and he would still charge forward," Thompson said.

Donathan's enthusiasm for diving helped smooth his rough edges. Every Wednesday he held an event he called "Burgers and Bubbles" at La Jolla Shores, at which divers and their friends could socialize and explore the water together.

But Donathan was also aware of the sport's risks and the importance of precautions, especially when it came to those he taught.

"With his students, he was really safe," said Tyler Stalter, 19, who took lessons from Donathan. "He was always drilling into us safety and dive planning, being mentally prepared."

Donathan was fascinated by the notion of finding a B-36 bomber that had crashed off Mission Beach in 1952. He discovered it in July 2004 and led a History Channel camera crew to the spot 267 feet below the surface.

Samuel said that when Donathan wasn't in the water, he spent hours at his computer writing stories about diving. He set up a Web site to promote his diving lessons. His motto: "I looked into the abyss and the abyss looked back."

Death on the Yukon

Donathan began exploring the Yukon soon after the 366-foot-long ship was sunk in July 2003. Before it was hauled off to the spot 1.85 miles west of Mission Beach known as "Wreck Alley," volunteers worked to make the ship safe by removing entanglements and creating openings for divers. The door to the boiler room on the ship's third level was welded shut because the room was too cluttered for safe exploration. Soon after the ship was sunk, someone pried open the boiler room door. Donathan was widely suspected, although Samuel and Donathan's friends say they don't know for sure.

"Steve loved diving and he loved living," Samuel said. "I don't think he would deliberately do something that he thought would cost him his life or endanger other divers."

Donathan slept in the office of his dive shop the night before his final dive. Samuel said she and Donathan had argued about a number of things, including his excessive computer use, and he decided not to come home to their apartment in the Midway area.

The afternoon of June 25, Donathan headed out to the Yukon with student Joseph Dangelmaier of Carlsbad, 18 other divers and four crew members. As a joke, a crew member listed Donathan as a "basic skin diver" on the dive roster despite his advanced training.

Dangelmaier later told police he lost track of Donathan as the two explored the wreck. He waited 15 minutes for his instructor and surfaced. When there was still no sign of Donathan 80 minutes after he entered the water, the dive master notified the Coast Guard.

Donathan's body was found two days later and brought to the surface the following day. Samuel said the lifeguards took the body to a secluded spot where she could say goodbye.

"I traced the tip of his nose and caressed his cheeks," Samuel said. "I told him how much I loved him."

She said Donathan would have hated all the television cameras and media attention over his death. "Steve always said that when he died he just wanted to go off and be fish food," she said.

Rumors flew among San Diego's divers after Donathan's death. Some said he wanted a souvenir from the boiler room to prove he'd been there. Others speculated he may have tried to commit suicide or suffered a heart attack once inside.

After an exhaustive investigation, San Diego police concluded that he died "as the result of a diving accident for which he was solely responsible."

Supremely sure of his skills as a diver, Donathan took risks that endangered his life, divers said.

"Often it's overconfidence. That's our worst enemy," Thompson said. "There's a certain competency level that you reach. It's at that point that you make mistakes that are needless."

Joel Silverstein, who often dove with Donathan, is regional manager for Technical Diving International, the world's largest agency for teaching technical diving. Silverstein acknowledged that Donathan broke rules on the Yukon dive, but he was also critical of the rescue efforts.

Silverstein said the lifeguard divers searching for Donathan were only equipped for short dives, going underwater dozens of times to look for him. It wasn't until the next day that technical divers were called in.

"They should have been able to find him in under 10 dives," Silverstein said. "Steve could have found somebody on that wreck faster."

San Diego Lifeguard Lt. Nick Lerma, who supervised the recovery of Donathan's body, said he resents the second-guessing by other divers. He said divers had to methodically search the ship to find Donathan.

And Donathan likely was already dead when the search began, Lerma said. The focus was on finding his body, not saving his life.

"Some of the people involved have the notion that they could have done this easily," Lerma said. "What we did took time. . . . The team did an outstanding job and nobody got hurt."

The "Burgers and Bubbles" get-together after Donathan's death was one of the group's largest. Dozens who signed a guest book expressed sympathy. Donathan was cremated and his ashes were spread in the ocean over the site of the B-36 bomber.

"He is finally free to explore the sea, and now he doesn't have to come back up for air," Donathan's 19-year-old son, Chris, wrote in a posting to fellow divers.

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