Divers urged to heed weather warnings

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Posted by on July 24, 2007 at 02:45:01:

In Reply to: Diver in Florida struck by lightning posted by 167 dive beginner on July 23, 2007 at 10:38:13:

Stephen Wilson's friends called him ''Nature Boy'' because he lived for the outdoors.

So when a lightning bolt struck his scuba tank Sunday afternoon, killing him instantly, friends and family found some comfort knowing that Wilson died doing something he loved.

''The first thing I thought was, he loved nature, he was surrounded by nature and nature took him out,'' said Mark Ahrens, 38, Wilson's friend for 22 years.

In South Florida, particularly on the water, nature can be fickle on summer afternoons, when thunderstorms often whip up fast and spit out deadly lightning.

Experts say that divers, including the thousands of amateur lobster hunters who will take to the water this week for the annual two-day mini-season, shouldn't take any chances when it comes to the state's notorious thunderstorms.

''This is a common-sense thing our parents told us,'' said Gary Hunt, co-owner of Underwater Unlimited, a Miami dive shop. ``Whenever there's lightning, what do you do? You come inside.''

Wilson was diving with friends in the ocean near Deerfield Beach when the bolt struck his tank as he swam to the surface about 50 feet from the boat. His fellow divers pulled off his tank immediately and struggled to get him back on the boat.

An autopsy on Monday determined that he was electrocuted.

Diving deaths like Wilson's are ''extremely rare,'' said Ensign Dan LiBrando with the U.S. Coast Guard. Most are caused by preexisting health conditions such as asthma or heart problems or by lack of training, he said.

Still, the National Weather Service recommends that swimmers and divers follow the ''30-30 rule,'' said Russell Pfost, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service: If lightning strikes within 30 seconds of a thunder clap, go inside immediately and stay inside for at least 30 minutes after the thunder stops.

''We just don't recommend being in a boat during a thunderstorm,'' he said. ``It's just not a good place to be.''

Some commercial dive shops, like Underwater Unlimited, go even further, keeping divers out of the water for as long as an hour. And many will cancel dive trips if there are thunderstorms in the forecast, as there were on Sunday.

But divers can still be caught by surprise. Jacob Leese, a dive master with Scuba Emporium in Lauderhill, was leading a group of divers off northern Fort Lauderdale when Sunday's storm rolled in.

The rain started just seconds after the divers descended, and dive leaders canceled the second dive of the day.

''We were just fortunate that there wasn't an accident,'' Leese said.

Wilson is the fourth lightning victim to die in South Florida this year, Pfost said.

As a teenager, he and Ahrens would spend hours poring over nature articles in scientific journals. As an adult, Wilson, 36, was a self-employed handyman who dreamed of selling his Deerfield Beach home and moving to Hobe Sound to be a lake manager.

Mark Wilson, one of Stephen Wilson's three older brothers, said his brother found refuge in outdoor activities, taking frequent fishing trips with Jennifer, his wife of 15 years.

''That was their thing,'' Mark Wilson said. ``That was their escape from everything else. They wouldn't take their cellphones and they would just go fishing.''

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