On the Front Lines of Safety

On the Front Lines of Safety


“With no prior knowledge of how to perform CPR, I lightly pumped on Robert’s chest and performed rescue breathing.  When my lips touched his I could taste the blood in his mouth, and I struggled to hold back my tears.”  


My Introduction to Freediving

I spotted him in a mango grove at a Fourth of July party hosted by my cousin.  He looked like a Viking – tall, blue eyed, and he sported a red beard.   This was fitting, as I learned he had just been shipwrecked and at sea for three days in a rubber raft before washing ashore on a remote Bahamian island. He was rescued and flown home just in time for us to meet.  As I was sunning in a lounge chair, he knelt beside me with casual chivalry and asked me if I was married, engaged, or in love.  His eyes looked into mine as his smile slowly widened.  And in that moment my life was changed forever.  


It was this Viking, Walter, who introduced me to freediving.  Because most of our courtship was spent in or on the water with a boat he named Chasing Julie, I quickly became a spearfishing enthusiast.  At the time I was only aware of the fun involved and the delicious seafood dinners that followed.  It never occurred to me that this seemingly innocuous activity could be dangerous. 


We married and, naturally, our two oldest sons, Robert and David, became expert divers at an early age and were spearfishing with their own Hawaiian slings by age 9.  I had never heard of shallow water blackout (SWB) until our oldest son Robert decided to take a freedive course.  I paid little attention to the information Robert shared from the course about SWB, thinking it must be something that happens to people who don’t know what they are doing.  But I was soon to learn that this is simply not true.  


Looking into the Face of Death


“David was in my hands staring up lifelessly with eyes that had the look of death.  Then his eyes locked onto mine for a couple of seconds before they slowly rolled away, as if he were having his last moments of life.”


April 19, 2008 dawned, revealing beautiful calm seas and clear skies – a spearfisherman’s dream.  It was Robert’s 20th birthday and he wanted to celebrate it by spearfishing with his 16-year-old brother, David, and three other friends:  Carson, two weeks away from completing Paramedic school; Nicky, 16, a close childhood friend; and Richard, 15, a friend of Nicky.  These three planned to follow my sons around on the reefs and learn to fish with Hawaiian slings. 


David had 8 lbs on his weight belt to be neutrally buoyant at about 20 ft.   His wetsuit didn’t fit well and he was very cold and shivered much of the day, but he was happy to be in the water.  Robert strapped on 7 lbs for neutral buoyancy at 30 ft. and wore a well-fitted wetsuit.   He also had just completed a Level II class with Martin Stepanek and was eager to test-drive the new techniques he had learned and share them with his brother. 


After a morning of shooting fish with their friends, Robert took his brother down to a 50 ft depth and watched as David lay on the bottom, hands behind his head and legs crossed in a lounging position.  Robert asked if he’d like to try a 70 ft dive, and David responded affirmatively.  


The boys ended up putting the anchor out in 92 ft of water; the anchor line was about 80-85 ft long. 


David:  When I began to breath in, Robert headed down.  I wanted to be close to him, so I didn’t have time to get a full breath before I headed down behind him.  I actually forgot to stop kicking after the usual seven kicks.  I kicked the whole way down.  When I got to the end of the anchor chain I noticed that Robert wasn’t next to me.  I looked down and saw he was still swimming down.  When Robert continued to the bottom I thought I might as well follow him.  I reached the bottom, grabbed some sand, and looked around for Robert.  We gave each other the thumbs up. 


Robert:  I looked at David and noticed he still had the snorkel in his mouth.  I was annoyed and thought, “I told him to spit that out.”  I reached over and swiped it out of his mouth.  Then I started up. 


David:  As I started up, I spun around to find the chain and followed it along behind Robert.  The anchor was about 10 ft or so off the bottom.  I remember going up the length of anchor chain, which was about 6 ft long.  And I remember being about 10-15 ft up the rope.  That’s the last thing I remember.


Robert:  I think I was about 10-15 ft from the surface because I felt the water temperature begin to change.  I looked down to see where David was.  I saw his kicking slow down and then stop.  He was just kind of hanging there.  I immediately turned around and headed straight back for David.  He was probably about 15 ft below me.  I poked David but he didn’t look at me.  I put my arms around his chest and started kicking up.  That’s pretty much the last thing I remember. 


Richard:  While the boys were diving, Nicky reeled in a fish and took a picture of it.  I had a nice grouper on the line and was starting to reel it in.  About four minutes had passed since the boys started their dive.  Carson noticed the boys bobble up to the surface about 30 yards away. 


Nicky:  At that moment, Carson let out a shout and jumped off the bow of the boat.  I thought he had yelled because he was happy.   I looked out and saw the boys in the water.  I didn’t know what was going on, but jumped in behind Carson to find out.  The boys were about 30 yards away.  


Carson:  I got to the boys and saw they were unconscious.  I worked to try to hold them both up out of the water, but it was impossible.  I had no fins and they were very heavy.  I was really struggling.


Nicky:  When I got there, Carson was between them but the brothers weren’t moving.  As soon as I turned Robert over and saw his face, I instantly thought the worst had just happened to one of my best friends.  I said, “Let me get Robert.”  Carson didn’t argue.  He started swimming back with David.  I held Robert on his back with my left arm, and I swam on my side beside him as I dragged him back to the boat.  I stopped once to try to give Robert a breath, but it was too hard to do in the ocean.  With Richard’s help we got both boys into the boat. 


Richard:  The three of us who were conscious were engulfed in a controlled state of panic.  David and Robert’s eyes were wide-open, bloodshot, and staring blankly into the sky. 


Nicky:  Robert’s lips and teeth were stained with blood and his dilated eyes bore a completely lifeless look; his normally brown eyes were now a sickly grayish color.  His lips were very large and a bluish purple.  He wasn’t moving at all.  I could not stop thinking he was dead, along with his brother. 


Richard:  Nicky, Carson, and I thought they were going to die right there.  Their faces were purple and David was bleeding profusely from his mouth.  Carson told me to turn him on his side and I did.


Nicky:  Carson asked me if Robert was breathing, but I already knew he wasn’t.  He then asked me if he had a pulse so I felt his neck and told him his pulse was really fast.  He said we needed to get that down but we didn’t know how to do that.   I noticed David was coughing up a lot of blood.


Richard:  David was in my hands staring up lifelessly with eyes that had the look of death.  Then his eyes locked onto mine for a couple of seconds before they slowly rolled away, as if he were having his last moments of life.  I patted his face firmly and pleaded, “David, stay with me, man.  David!  Stay with me, man.  I’m right here.”  My heart was racing in my chest.  I kept hoping David would catch my eye again.


David:  I remember being in the presence of a very bright light.  It was like looking into a welder’s torch.  I felt very peaceful and I wanted to stay where I was, but someone kept bothering me.  I wanted them to go away and leave me alone.


Nicky:  With no prior knowledge of how to perform CPR, I lightly pumped on Robert’s chest and performed rescue breathing.  When my lips touched his, I could taste the blood in his mouth and I struggled to hold back my tears.   I gave him four breaths.  I stopped and then tried again. 


Robert:  The first thing I became aware of was someone’s lips on mine.  I thought, “Aww, no.  What is this?”  I heard Nicky ask Carson if he should cut off my wetsuit.  I love that wetsuit.  I couldn’t respond to anything I was feeling or hearing but my brain was screaming, “No!  NO!  NOOOO!!”  Then I heard Carson say not to cut it – he would show Nicky how to take it off.  Oh, man.  I was relieved!


Nicky:  I breathed into Robert’s mouth four more times.  Robert coughed and blood came out as I was breathing into him.  When I tasted his blood I drew back and told Carson, “He’s breathing!”  I pulled off his weight belt.  I was holding Robert’s hand and started talking to him.  I said, “Hang on.  I love you.”  I told him how much he meant to me, how he was my best friend.  I just kept talking to him, trying to coax him back.  Robert started blinking.  He mumbled for a minute and then all of a sudden he sat up by himself and asked, “Where’s my fin?” I told him his fin was right beside him, but that wasn’t true.  We had lost it getting him onto the boat.  I just wanted to keep him calm. 


Then I looked over and saw David with Richard by his side.  David was conscious but was profusely spitting up blood like he was vomiting. 


David:  I remember coughing in the back of the boat.  I was really tired and I just wanted to go back to sleep.  I was thinking, “Wait a minute.  I was just coming up from a dive.  What am I doing here?  Oh, no.  I hope I didn’t do something stupid.” 


Nicky:  I sat down next to David and started talking to him.  Robert came over and started wiping blood off David.  He had coughed up a lot of blood and some of it was in his eyes so Robert was wiping blood off David’s eyes.  Then Carson and I took off David’s wetsuit.  David was groggy and had a hard time coming around.  Robert walked up to the front of the boat and rested.


Richard:  David started to slowly regain a sense of where he was.  The boys were alive, just barely, but alive.  Once the two of them were breathing again, we radioed the Coast Guard.  They told us to head over to Boca Chita island and they would meet us there.  Carson got us there fast. By the time we arrived, Robert was now fully conscious and walking around, while David was still on his side coughing up enormous amounts of blood. 


Robert:  I remember I sat down on the boat and bent over holding onto the supports of the T-top. I closed my eyes to pray and thank God for saving us. Carson saw that and yelled out to Richard to grab me because I was going to faint. But I wasn’t fainting. I was just so thankful we were alive. 


Richard:  Shortly after we arrived to the island, the medics docked their boats. They quickly took the boys vitals and stuck an IV in them. 


Nicky:  Both of the brothers were airlifted to the hospital in critical condition. We three were left behind. No one talked or moved for several minutes, absorbing what had just happened. The disaster felt like an eternity, but in reality it was only 30 minutes. The boat was left a complete mess:  blood, clothing, and equipment. 


Looking back on that incident, I have become more of a man. I have a new understanding of what it means to step up to the plate. I still have nightmares about it. I visualize Robert’s lifeless face staring at me.  I get chills thinking about it. 


A Freedive Safety Organization is Born

Our sons were medevaced out on life support and Walter and I met the helicopter at the hospital.  Their rescuers arrived at the hospital some time later.  It was then we realized how traumatized they had also been.  This experience would later help me understand the importance of assisting a blackout victim’s responder(s) by addressing the psychological trauma suffered after such events. 


Miraculously, my sons eventually made a full recovery.  That year there were 60 breath-hold incidents reported to Divers Alert Network.  All but three died.  Two of the survivors were my sons, thanks to their quick-thinking friends and, we believe, God’s grace.


Soon after the accident, concerned freedive experts contacted me and encouraged me to use my story to make a difference in the sport. Blackout, I learned, was claiming the lives of many freedivers annually.  I felt a strong desire to respond to the need and so, two months after the accident, I founded DiveWise in order to further freedive safety education.


After my new Advisory Board educated me on the physiology of freediver blackout, I realized the mistakes my boys had made and why they had nearly died.  Martin Stepanek was deeply concerned and made a visit to our house to learn more about the accident and made sure we all understood how to manage the risks in the sport. 


DiveWise quickly made progress in advancing freedive safety.  We were the first freedive safety organization in the world, and are very happy to have assisted in the formation of other dive safety organizations since our founding.  Two years after we launched DiveWise, the Underwater Society of America nominated us for an award.  At an awards ceremony the following year, I was awarded the Coast Guard-funded National Water Safety Congress’ National Award for outstanding work in promoting Water safety.  It is gratifying to know we are making a difference, but there is still so much to do.


Innovations in Risk Management

Tracking fatality reports is vital in understanding how accidents happen and how we can best prevent them.  We are pleased Divers Alert Network has recently launched their online Breath-hold Incident Database so divers can report fatal and non-fatal events easily and anonymously.  This can be accessed at www.DiveWise.org or www.DAN.org. 


Through much effort and single-minded dedication, Terry Maas has given a gift to freedivers everywhere with his ingenious device, the Freediver Recovery Vest and, recently, its more streamlined version, the FRV Mark II.  This unit is designed, through the diver’s preset depth and time setting, to deliver a blackout victim to the surface.   With a price tag of $1100, it’s attainable to many and definitely worth saving up so you can add this item to your gear bag.


Currently DiveWise is launching on a couple of important safety initiatives.  Terry Maas, Dr. Neal Pollock (Research Director of Divers Alert Network), and I have created coursework for a freedive safety module which can be accessed through the DiveWise website.  It is free and will help divers understand the risks in the sport and how they can successfully manage them.  


DiveWise has also been involved in a collaborative effort with Terry Maas and a new organization - Shallow Water Blackout Prevention.  We have designed warning tags to be placed on freedive products to direct the consumer to our websites where they can learn more about risk management in the sport.  Manufacturers, concerned about the safety of their customers, have agreed to place the tags on their equipment.  Additionally, we are looking to rebuild the DiveWise website to accommodate our growing need for expansion, to accommodate the new safety module, and to have the site translated into several languages – a frequent request from divers around the world. 


Never before has more effort from a variety of unified fronts created a greater combined potential for saving lives in the sport of freediving and spearfishing.  We are hopeful this will correspond to an increasingly lower fatality rate in the coming years.


Giving Back

Understanding the financial needs of DiveWise in launching these new initiatives, Robert responded by heading up our first fundraiser.  For a year he trained on his bicycle to ride his bike from L.A. to Miami.  Other cyclists have joined him on this trip, including DiveWise’s CEO Jimmy McCarthy, who took Stepanek’s course four years ago with Robert.  They are excited about the adventure and about their opportunity to raise money to help educate others about the risks in freediving and how to effectively manage them.  “I’m still here,” Robert says, “but I probably should have died that day.  I just want to do what I can to make sure others know how easily a dive accident can happen so they can avoid a tragedy.  Too many people are dying of blackout in our sport.  I want to help change that.” 


DiveWise isn’t my organization.  It’s yours.  We are here to serve the freedive community; no one here receives a salary.  If you want safety education furthered in your sport, if you want to see the fatality rate decline as we do, then please help us make it happen.  Visit www.Razoo.com/story/Dollars-For-Freedive-Safety and support Robert as he works to improve safety in our sport.   And a big “thank you” to the organizations and individuals who have given generously these past four years in support of our work.  We couldn’t have done it without you! 


Julie Richardson lives in Miami, FL with her husband and their three sons ages 24, 21, and 7. She and her family are avid boaters and spearfishers and have cruised throughout the Bahamas, South Florida, and Alaska.  To learn more about freediver blackout visit www.DiveWise.org or email julie@divewise.org



Written by Julie Richardson
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