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Divers killed inspecting intake pipes

Discussion in 'Public Safety Divers/Search and Rescue' started by Yotsie, Feb 8, 2007.

  1. BladesRobinson

    BladesRobinson ScubaBoard Supporter ScubaBoard Supporter

    State takes heat over divers' deaths
    A routine inspection in the California Aqueduct goes awry. The cause of the fatalities isn't clear. Industry experts say the men were ill-equipped.
    By Eric Bailey, Times Staff Writer
    February 10, 2007

    SACRAMENTO — State officials suspended operations of an elite dive team and fended off criticism Friday after a mysterious tragedy left two scuba divers dead during a routine underwater maintenance inspection in the California Aqueduct's inky depths.

    Tim Crawford and Martin Alvarado were supposed to remain in the turbid, debris-strewn water less than half an hour to examine the steel grates that protect the mammoth intakes of a pumping plant near Los Banos.

    When they failed to surface as anticipated and a co-worker on shore put out a call for help, the closest backup diver was 18 miles away, according to investigators.

    The two men, both veterans of the California Department of Water Resources 13-member dive team, were dead by the time they were pulled from the water Wednesday.

    Investigators with the California Highway Patrol said there was air left in their tanks and no signs of the sort of outward trauma that might have occurred had they been pinned against the steel grates by the force of water being siphoned into the pumps.

    Only one of the six pumps was left in operation, and the men were supposed to stay at least 50 feet from it. Their goal was to search for invasive quagga mussels that could pose a threat to the water system.

    But somehow, roughly 30 feet underwater in a difficult aquatic environment where visibility can shrink to inches and obstacles can include animal carcasses and junked cars, the pair found themselves fighting for life.

    Authorities have conducted autopsies but don't anticipate any results until toxicology tests are concluded later this month.

    As news of the tragedy spread, commercial diving experts criticized the state for deploying divers without equipment considered the industry standard.

    "I'm sorry to say this probably could have been avoided," said Phil Newsum, executive director of the Assn. of Diving Contractors International.

    Crawford, 56, and Alvarado, 44, were outfitted in high-quality scuba gear — masks, wetsuits and tanks — and tethered together by a "buddy" line as required under the state's diving policies and procedures, a 10-page document drawn up in 1986. A shoreline tender stood ready to assist but without any scuba gear.

    Newsum and other commercial diving experts say diving in such conditions — with virtually zero visibility, numerous potential obstacles and the merciless tug of giant pumps — calls for greater safety precautions and better gear.

    Commercial offshore divers routinely wear hardened helmets tethered by air hoses and a communications cable to the shoreline. They also carry auxiliary air tanks on their backs. If trouble crops up, they can alert those on shore and a safety diver can come after them, following their air hoses.

    Despite the inherent dangers, the industry has a good track record. In the last 18 months, Newsum said, four commercial divers have died in the U.S., a ratio of 1 death for every 55,000 dives.

    John Ritter, president of Seattle-based Dive Commercial International, speculated that the tragedy may have been caused by the divers venturing too close to the pump that was running and getting pulled against the metal grates or by bad air in their tanks.

    As a tank is filled with compressed air, precautions need to be taken to ensure that the carbon monoxide exhaust from a gasoline-powered compressor isn't inadvertently drawn in, he said.

    Ritter said the ill-fated divers should not have been using scuba gear.

    "There's a big advantage to scuba as far as mobility, but there's too many disadvantages as far as air supply and no communication," Ritter said. "There's been so many cases where a scuba diver struggles to get free from a snag, his regulator is ripped from his mouth, he panics and drowns."

    State officials said members of the dive team, which before Wednesday's tragedy had never suffered a fatality in three decades of operation, were upset by the criticism but unwilling amid their grief to field questions from reporters.

    "They take very seriously the work they do and are very proud," said Nancy Saracino, chief deputy director of the Department of Water Resources. "To have others who were not there or not familiar with our processes or have other agendas pass aspersions is very upsetting to them."

    The group, which has suspended all operations during an investigation into the accident, is made up of a variety of department employees — some engineers, some utility workers. Each member makes up to five dives a month on a voluntary basis, and the average experience is about a decade, said Sue Sims, a department spokeswoman.

    They have top-of-the-line scuba equipment, well-suited to the work they do — brief stints that require maneuverability in shallow water, Sims said. If conditions dictate, the department hires commercial divers with shore-supplied gear, she said.

    "They are down there to inspect, not install equipment or repair broken facilities," Sims said. "Those are things for which we'd hire commercial divers."

    Sims said the investigation by the CHP and Cal/OSHA is intended to determine not only why the pair died, but also to point out any changes that might be considered to improve safety conditions for the department's divers.

    Crawford was the most veteran team member. In a 2001 article on the team published in the Department of Water Resources' in-house magazine, a photo shows him surfacing near the spot where he died.

    In the article, Crawford tells of the dangers of the job, recalling a close encounter with trouble while inspecting a dredge pump in the aqueduct. As they swam, Crawford and his dive partner ran into a 10-foot wall of silt. "It could have easily collapsed and buried us," he said.

    Divers also recounted hitting more routine hazards in the aqueduct, a dumping ground along much of its trek through the Central Valley. Among the things they mentioned encountering were washing machines, cars and huge fishing hooks jettisoned by anglers.

    One diver said in the article that diving into the aqueduct was the equivalent of navigating "a pitch-black room," working by feel. "The situation can be freaky," he said. "We have flashlights, but they don't help much."

    The article also said the additional hazard pay divers receive is far less than what it would cost to hire contract divers.

    "It is more expensive," agreed Newsum of the Assn. of Division Contractors International. "But we're not talking a large sum of money. And what price can you put on the lives that were lost Wednesday?"
  2. Yotsie

    Yotsie Public Safety Diver

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Modesto, CA
    I have also learned that one tank was completely empty and the other tank had approx. 250 PSI left. There was also no safety diver on scene and no tether to the surface, just each other.

    I would also like to point out that I am not bringing this news as a criticism of what happened. It is a tragic event. I hope that by studying what happened here, similar events won't be repeated.

    Deaths of two divers halt inspections of aqueduct
    Experts decry workers' use of recreational scuba gear


    Last Updated: February 10, 2007, 04:26:23 AM PST

    Underwater inspections of an aqueduct that supplies water to millions in Southern California have been suspended following the deaths of two state divers, a state official said Friday.
    Inspections, maintenance or repair work that were to take place are on hold while investigators determine how the two men died during a routine inspection Wednesday, said Sue Sims, spokeswoman for the California Department of Water Resources.

    "At this time, our employees are not diving pending the results of the investigation," Sims wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

    Sims said the department would employ contractors if work needs to be done at one of its 22 dams or along the 444-mile California Aqueduct.

    Tim Crawford, 50, and Martin Alvarado, 44, died after descending 30 feet to inspect filter screens on the floor of the aqueduct at the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant near Los Banos. The pair wore recreational scuba gear, which is standard practice at the department.

    Industry and diving experts have described the equipment as woefully insufficient. Commercial divers use sturdy helmets, ropes and oxygen lines, as well as a monitoring station.

    Department officials say they were experienced divers who had kept up to date on their skills and certifications.

    Two diving experts contacted Friday questioned the equipment used by the divers.

    "The mode of diving, if it was scuba, it was probably a very, very poor decision from a safety standpoint," said Phil Newsum, executive director of the Houston-based Association of Diving Contractors International.

    Newsum said diving gear that allows a diver to be tethered to the surface would have been more appropriate for the type of dive Alvarado and Crawford were performing.

    Surface-supplied diving gear includes a helmet that allows for protection in low visibility areas and a tube attached to the helmet that allows the diver to breathe using air that is transferred from a compressor at the surface.

    Newsum said surface-supplied diving gear also can include a hard-wire communication device to remain in contact with people above the water.

    "If the divers were on scuba, when they should have been on surface supplied (gear), that's an issue," said Dan Vasey, director of the Marine Diving Technology Department at Santa Barbara City College.
  3. H2Andy

    H2Andy Blue Whale

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: NE Florida
    the first reports said a safety diver went in the water shortly after trouble was suspected.

    did this report turn out to be false? were the first reports talking about the diver 18 miles away who responded?
  4. Yotsie

    Yotsie Public Safety Diver

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Modesto, CA
    I asked the same question and was told the first diver on scene after the person monitoring them topside thought there was trouble was the diver who came from 18 miles out. There was no third diver on scene when the two victims went in.
  5. H2Andy

    H2Andy Blue Whale

    # of Dives: 200 - 499
    Location: NE Florida
    man ...

    not a well run show
  6. Yotsie

    Yotsie Public Safety Diver

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Modesto, CA

    Report says divers swept to pump
    Document does not indicate how pair died checking plant


    Last Updated: March 1, 2007, 04:07:03 AM PST

    SACRAMENTO — The bodies of two divers who died Feb. 7 while inspecting a pumping station in the California Aqueduct near Santa Nella were found in front of the lone pump that was operating when they submerged, according to a preliminary investigation by the Department of Water Resources.
    The internal report obtained Wednesday sheds light for the first time on the events surrounding the deaths of divers Tim Crawford, 50, and Martin Alvarado, 44.

    It indicates that the state employees may have been swept toward the operating pump as they were attempting to clean the metal grates that prevent garbage from being swept into the aqueduct's pumping system.

    The five-page report offers no conclusions about how the men died or how their bodies ended up in front of the operating pump.

    But it provides the first account from a third person who was attempting to follow the divers' movements from shore.

    Progress tracked by bubble paths

    That person, referred to in the report as a dive tender, watched two patterns of bubbles move across the aqueduct after Crawford and Alvarado went into the murky water, where visibility was just one to two feet.

    "He followed the bubbles while standing on the deck and noticed the bubbles move to the front of units 2 and then 3," the report states, referring to the six pumps below the canal.

    "Once the bubbles surfaced in front of unit 4 … the dive tender noted the bubbles began to sweep towards unit 5."

    Unit five was the lone pump scheduled to be operating while the divers were underwater. They were not supposed to be near it, according to the report, which was distributed to Department of Water Resources staff members.

    When the divers failed to surface, the pump was shut off and another diver arrived to search for them. The bodies were found at the bottom of the aqueduct in front of the pump that had been running.

    Crawford and Alvarado are the first members of the department's dive team to die while on duty.

    On the morning of their deaths, they were scheduled to search for invasive mussels on the metal trash grates at the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant. The station, about nine miles from Los Banos, lifts water into a section of the California Aqueduct that feeds Southern California.

    The divers had talked to the plant operators and knew the one pump was operating when they went into the water, the report says.

    The diving program has been suspended while the deaths are investigated by the Department of Water Resources, the California Highway Patrol and the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
  7. Gary D.

    Gary D. ScubaBoard Supporter ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: I'm a Fish!
    Location: Post Falls, Idaho
    They can’t shut down a pump for general maintenance but they sure can to clean up a mess. This happens in so many occupations and activities, when will we ever learn?

    It’s like cleaning out a clogged snow blower while it’s running. All the safety warnings in the world don’t help common sense.

    Gary D.
  8. pipedope

    pipedope Great White

    It is all about cutting corners.
    This work is commercial diving and calls for commercial dive training, commercial equipment and commercial procedures.

    This was a tragedy but was not an accident.
  9. DennisS

    DennisS Marine Scientist

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Sebastian, FL
    Surface supplied doesn't always work. A friend of mine is a dive supervisor, he's an old man in the business, with 30 years experience. He's disgusting, he grabs his gut and pinches maybe a 1/2 inch.

    He was working a project and the umbilical started whipping off the deck, dragged everything attached with it to the side of the ship, then the umbilical snapped. He had to stop the backup divers from going in. It was in the gulf oil patch, someone opened a valve miles away, slurp.

    He'd been living on a 26' boat out in California for over a year when I gave him a ride back to Houston, where he told god he'd never do commercial again. He's back in the saddle, doing what he does.

    No one ever hears about these folks and what they do.
  10. Yotsie

    Yotsie Public Safety Diver

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Modesto, CA
    In todays paper...........

    Findings in divers' deaths in 2 weeks


    The results of the California Highway Patrol's investigation of the February deaths of two Department of Water Resources divers will be released to the public in about two weeks, a CHP spokeswoman said.
    Sgt. Karen Barrows of the CHP's Central Division Office in Fresno said that though CHP investigators have reached their findings, her office is conducting a final review of the document before it is made public.

    "We want to make sure it presents itself well before we release it," Barrows said Monday.

    The report might shed light upon what caused the Feb. 7 deaths of DWR divers Tim Crawford, 56, and Martin Alvarado, 44, during a routine inspection at the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant, which serves a section of the California Aqueduct near Los Banos.

    Barrows said she could not comment on the report's findings, but said it will contain a timeline of events leading up to the divers' deaths, in addition to an opinion about what occurred and a recommendation.

    The report was written by a CHP officer with the Los Banos office and a CHP supervisor, Barrows said.

    Although a preliminary autopsy report also has been completed, the Merced County coroner is not releasing that information until the CHP report has been released, according to deputy Paul Barile, a Sheriff's Department spokesman.

    Lots of unanswered questions

    Alvarado and Crawford died during what was supposed to be a 20-minute inspection of submerged metal grates that serve as a filter to prevent rocks, logs and other debris from being sucked into the plant's valves.

    Many questions remain about the divers' deaths, particularly because CHP officials said both divers still had air left in their tanks.

    Some diving experts have said the scuba gear worn by Alvarado and Crawford was inadequate for the type of work they were doing.

    The Associated Press reported in February that an internal DWR report found that Crawford and Alvarado may have unintentionally been swept toward one of the plant's operating pumps while attempting to clean the metal grates.

    The report provided an account from a DWR dive tender who was attempting to follow the divers' movements from above the water by watching two patterns of bubbles move across the aqueduct.

    "He followed the bubbles while standing on the deck and noticed the bubbles move to the front of units two and then three," the report states, referring to the six pumps submerged below the canal. "Once the bubbles surfaced in front of unit four … the dive tender noted the bubbles began to sweep towards unit five."

    Unit five was the only pump scheduled to be operating while the divers were underwater, and the divers were not supposed to be near it, according to the report.

    When the divers did not surface, the pump was shut off and another diver arrived to search for them. The bodies were found at the bottom of the aqueduct in front of the pump that had been running, the Associated Press reported.

    The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration also is conducting an investigation into the divers' deaths, according to Dean Fryer, CAL/OSHA spokesman. Fryer did not say when the results of that investigation would be released.

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