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Investigation into divers' Super Pond deaths found series of failures

Cmdr. Michael Runkle, commanding officer of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, delivers remarks during a memorial service March 14, 2013, at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story for Navy Diver 1st Class James Reyher and Navy Diver 2nd Class Ryan Harris, from MDSU-2, who died Feb. 26.

NORFOLK, Va. -- An in-depth examination into the deaths of two Navy divers during a training accident last year could not pinpoint a singular cause for the drownings of Petty Officer 1st Class James Reyher and Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Harris.

The report, obtained Wednesday by The Virginian-Pilot, found a series of failures ranging from the leadership and decision-making at Mobile Diving Salvage Unit 2 to the scuba equipment.

"We may never know with complete certainty what happened to our sailors," Adm. Michael Tillotson, who was then commander of Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, wrote in response to the report. "This investigation has revealed there were multiple points of failure in leadership and decision-making that led to this tragedy."

Reyher, 28, and Harris, 23, were among the most experienced divers of Company 2-3 based out of Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek in Virginia Beach. On Feb. 26, 2013, they were tasked with an unplanned scuba dive at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

The group was diving the pond as part of its pre-deployment evaluation. The men were supposed to conduct a 150-foot dive to locate a sunken helicopter. The breathing apparatus they were to use, known as the Mark 16, was not working properly, and the officers in charge of the training that day made the call to use scuba gear instead.

That meant the men were diving very deep in cold, murky water with a limited air supply, low visibility and in a pond with debris strewn across the bottom. The divers had little reserve air if something went wrong, the investigation found.

The report was completed on April 1, 2013, and The Pilot requested a copy under the Freedom of Information Act last year. The Navy did not release it until Wednesday.

It determined that the unit's leaders did not adequately assess the risks, ordered the dive without proper authorization, and pushed it beyond normal limits.

"There was absolutely no justification for command personnel to 'push the envelope,' " Tillotson wrote. "The number one priority in any training event is safety and none of the on-scene personnel involved gave personal safety the appropriate emphasis."

The investigation found fault with the diving unit's commanding officer, Cmdr. Michael Runkle, who had already come under scrutiny for problems with his leadership.

Tillotson supported a decision by Capt. Tim Rudderow, who as commander of Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Two oversaw the diving units, to fire Runkle in the wake of the accident. Rudderow said Runkle was disengaged, unapproachable and irresponsible with risk assessment, all of which "had a role in the outcome of this incident."

The investigation recommended nonjudicial punishment for five other leaders involved in the dive. Instead, Rudderow's successor chose to seek judicial proceedings against two of the men and one, the unit's master diver, was found guilty in February of dereliction of duty for failing to ensure proper safety procedures during the dive.

dianna.cahn@pilotonline.com

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