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Rescue on the Cedarville

The following piece was written just after returning home from the events described, while they were still reasonably fresh in my mind; it's by no means an exhaustive account, but does try to re-cap what I remember from my point of view during the events and some of the thoughts going through my head then. As the events happened, quick response and action were needed, and most of the emotion and analysis happened later.

August 6th, 2000 dawned gray and rainy. We were supposed to go out for the second day of diving on the Straits of Mackinaw, but word was initially that it might be too rough to go out, and then that we would still be going out.

Figuring it'd be too rough to be taking any extra gear, and that anyway "I'm not going inside any wrecks today" because my buddy Dave was shooting video and was quite particular about the visibility, I left my lights and primary reel in my van.

We went out in Jim and Pat Stayer's boat, the Sand Dollar, to the wreck of the Cedarville, a 600' steel freighter lying upside-down in 100' of water just a couple of miles downstream of the Mackinaw bridge. The wreck is too big to see all of in one dive, and most of the points of interest are at the bow and stern. There were mooring buoys at both ends and amidships. Dave, Xena, and I did an uneventful dive on the bow, although it was dark and visibility was poor, then cast off with the intention of tying up to the idle midships buoy to accumulate some surface time and wait for the diveboats presently using the stern buoy to move off before our second dive.

As we were moving, an obviously-agitated diver popped to the surface between the midships and stern buoys. We initially thought he had an unconscious diver floating face-down beside him, but as we zoomed closer we realized it was his own rig which he had taken off for some reason.

As we helped him into the boat, we got his story: his buddy was trapped inside the wreck, just under a porthole. This fellow had managed to squeeze through, pushing his tank ahead of him, but his buddy had been unable to follow. They had gone "just a little way" inside and had become unable to find their way back out.

At this point, I had successfully completed 450 scuba dives without ever being involved in a major emergency, but we had one on our hands now: if we can get to this guy in time, get air to him, and find a way to bring him out, we can save his life, but time is ticking and his air is running out, and this is exactly the sort of situation that ends in somebody going home in a body bag more often than not. Divers get told time and time again not to exceed their training, not to go inside wrecks and caves if they don't have the training to know how to get back out, and fatality reports are filled with tales of newbies going "just a little way" in, but still divers think they'll be okay if they go in "just a little way".

My buddies and I are trained cave divers, we know how to go inside places and back out again, and we had just come up from a dive, still had our suits on and lots of air in our tanks for a planned second dive. Most divers don't have that level of training. I realized we were very likely the only people able to safely go inside the wreck and do the rescue, and I announced "We're going down there and we're going to get him out." The alternatives didn't bear thinking about; there was absolutely no way I wanted to be involved in a body-recovery, and I was motivated to work hard to make sure that didn't happen.

We had a bit of a gear problem: between the three of us, we had only Dave's video light and Xena's backup light; normally we'd each wear a big primary light and two backup lights going into a wreck or a cave. We could get two divers into the water faster than three, and Dave and I had a lot more air in our twin 112's than Xena had in her "girlie tanks", twin 85's; there'd be a problem if she had to share air with the trapped diver. I borrowed Xena's light and reel so I wouldn't have to lead on my safety spool and went in.

Maybe, in retrospect, we should have taken her, and probably there were a number of things that could have been fine-tuned, but under time pressure we stitched together the best plans we could.

Plan A, if the diver had enough air, had the two of us going in together; plan B called for me dropping my long hose through the porthole while Dave did the rescue solo.

As we prepared to go in, we were told the porthole in question was about 50 feet forward of the line, on the right (port, since it was inverted) side of the wreck. The Sand Dollar was by now tied off alongside the two boats already on the mooring.

There were reported to be six divers still in the water in addition to the trapped diver; all six were on the line doing deco or safety stops, oblivious to the problem below them, as we went past them at top speed. I have to blush and admit that I had neglected to connect my suit inflater in the rush to get into the water, but I pointed to it and Dave hooked it up for me. Heading forward, I saw a line of portholes, with divers clustered around one. "This must be the party we were invited to" I thought, even before seeing a diver's head poking through the hole. The other divers had brought down a tank, and I had a glimpse of the gauge showing a full 3000 psi before they passed it in through the porthole. This meant the initial problem was solved, the diver had air to breathe, and we had a comfortable amount of time to spend finding the way to get him out.

We dropped down the hull and into the aft superstructure area, looking for a doorway or hatchway leading down/up into the part of the ship holding the diver. Trying to mentally turn what we were seeing three-quarters of the way over and picture what the ship used to look like was challenging. I found what might have been the engineroom hatchway, unclipped Xena's reel, tied off, and headed in by the beam of her small light. Having Dave's 100 watts behind me helped a lot. The passage headed downward first, into the wreck, then opened up. I looked up and saw daylight shining through portholes, and smiled knowing I was almost certainly in the right place. I ran line upward toward them, saw the diver under one of the portholes, and came up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder, and showed him the guideline. He didn't need much more prompting; he was off like a shot, following the line with the extra tank under his arm.

I followed, cranking line back onto the reel. Yes, you can drop the reel and run in a real emergency, but I can reel up as fast as it's wise to swim in close quarters and that keeps the line taut and avoids entanglements. Besides, it was a borrowed reel, and anyway you try not to lose gear.

As I hit the low area, silt dropped the viz to zero, proof our new friend had passed through here, but I came through that and hit the exit. Dave was there. As leader on a penetration dive, it's my responsibility to count divers ahead of me on exit and not leave anyone; I didn't see the rescued diver, but since he was a non-caver I didn't expect him to stick around and be counted, and anyway Dave looked happy so I trusted he had shepherded the guy out.

We swam back to the line, and sure enough the rescued diver was decompressing, with the other two divers who had brought him the air in attendance. I realized this fellow had probably built up quite a decompression obligation. He was wearing an Aladdin computer; Dave owns one of those, so I signalled him to move in close and read the display. Dave and I had almost no deco required, so we did a safety stop and surfaced.

Coming past our own boat, we saw that Jim and Pat had quite an impressive deco setup, with two green oxygen hoses over the side and a total of six second stages down at 20 feet. We discussed bringing the diver back from the mooring line to complete his deco on oxygen, and I dropped down (one of my ears had finally had enough of all this up-and-down, and blocked, which it normally never does, but I only had to make it down to 20 feet this time and persuaded it to cooperate). I tied the reel off on one of the regs, and headed forward under the boats back to the mooring line. When I got there, I signalled to the rescued diver that he should follow the line. He had had good success last time he followed that very line, so he did again and got on oxygen. Dave and I also appropriated some. There's nothing quite like some quality time on oxygen at the end of a long dive, to flush any bad karma out of your system. The fellow was near the end of deco, and after four or five minutes on oxygen was ready to surface. We climbed into our respective boats with practically no fanfare at all and headed back into the Mackinaw City Marina.

The two divers who had brought the air down had come out in another boat, but went back in with us. They introduced themselves as Mike and Steve, from Columbus Ohio. Mike's a police diver, but he said in all the time he's done that he's never rescued anybody; by the time the police show up it's invariably a body-recovery dive. Steve's a securities trader, and says the stress of that job made today's stress not a problem. They had come up from from their first dive just after the situation broke and had been sent straight back down with the extra tank, just as Dave and I had been gearing up to go back in.

It may not have been the prettiest dive I ever did, but the key thing is we managed to snatch one from the jaws of Darwin, and everyone went home happy.

P.S. Rather than edit the original manuscript and tone down the "girlie tanks" bit, I'll note that I've since then gotten reasonable bottom time at 261 feet with that very set of 85s, and again thank her for their loan for our 2001 Gunilda Expedition.


Last modified 2004-11-17 by Anthony DeBoer.