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More questions, few answers in deaths of 2 Navy SEALs

By DIANNA CAHN AND LAUREN KING | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 28, 2015

VIRGINIA BEACH (Tribune News Service) — The drowning deaths of two highly trained and physically fit Navy SEALs in a base pool where they regularly worked out have so far raised more questions than answers.

Petty Officers 1st Class Seth Cody Lewis and Brett Allen Marihugh were found unresponsive at the bottom of the pool at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek shortly before 3 p.m. Friday. They were taken from the Combat Swimmer Training Facility to hospitals. Lewis was pronounced dead shortly after arriving. Marihugh died Sunday.

The pool — just short of Olympic size — is used by Naval Special Warfare Group 2 for formal training. It is also open, during designated hours, to SEALs and sailors attached to their units for workouts on their own time.

SEALs using the pool for routine workouts are required to swim with a buddy. But they are experts with a high level of training and agility in the water.

Lt. Dave Lloyd, a spokesman for Naval Special Warfare Group 2, said investigators are trying to determine how the drowning accident occurred, but that could take time.

Meanwhile, the swimming facility is closed, Lloyd said. He said investigators are reviewing standard operating procedures at the pool "to find out if there was something that was ignored" or that should be changed.

Under the current pool schedule, the pool has a lifeguard for 2 1/2 hours each day when it is open to anyone on base with an ID card. During the scheduled SEAL workout hours, there is no lifeguard, only the two-man rule. Investigators will look into whether the rules require that someone be present on deck around the pool's perimeter during the scheduled workout hours — just in case something goes wrong, like it did Friday.

Lloyd said the men were not using diving gear and did not appear to have been using the training ropes and nets that hang above the pool. But he could not say what the men might have been doing in the minutes before they were found.

The Navy described the deaths as accidental drownings.

Experts have suggested the two men might have blacked out underwater, which can happen when someone holds his breath too long. In such cases, a lack of oxygen will cause someone to suddenly lose consciousness, while a buildup of carbon dioxide triggers an involuntary reflex to breathe.

The person will unconsciously breathe water into the lungs and drown quickly — quicker than people drown if they're struggling to stay afloat.

John Porter, a retired firefighter and paramedic who worked 25 years for the James City County Fire Department, saw about 20 double drownings in his career — all but two involved people holding their breath, he said.

In one case that didn't end in death, a woman jumped in to save her daughter. Neither knew how to swim. The firefighters were quickly able to revive them.

"If somebody sees it and pulls them out and starts rescue breathing, there's a much higher chance of surviving than if they are lying on the bottom of the pool," Porter said.

In many of the other cases, he said, swimmers were alone in pools. Medical examiners found a large amount of water in their lungs, indicative that the drownings occurred after the swimmers blacked out.

"Almost all of them, the coroner put 'most likely accidental drowning while holding breath,' " Porter said. "It's just sad. I don't think people understand the mechanisms involved in why it is so dangerous."

The Virginia Chief Medical Examiner's regional office, contacted Monday, did not release information about the men's deaths.

Lewis and Marihugh joined the SEALs the same year — 2007 — and deployed multiple times, earning awards and decorations including the Bronze Star.

Both were Marines before entering the Navy and passing Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training — the grueling 21-week training known as BUD/S. The training includes multiple types of underwater agility and competency testing.

Images of the training show SEAL hopefuls lying arm in arm in the surf as ocean waves crash down on them. Trainees in diving gear practice being attacked, jerked and tugged underwater, testing their ability to remain calm in potentially life-threatening situations while deprived of oxygen.

Dave Marihugh said he didn't know whether Lewis and his cousin knew each other before they were assigned to Virginia Beach.

Brett Marihugh joined the Marines out of high school and later decided to join the Navy with the hope of becoming a SEAL, according to his cousin.

"I think he wanted to excel at the top levels in the military," Dave Marihugh said.

To his extended family in Michigan, Brett Marihugh was just a "funny kid" who had grown into a "pretty amazing guy."

His schedule was hard to predict, and sometimes Marihugh would pop into Michigan for a few days to see his grandmother and uncles, Dave Marihugh said.

He usually took time off to attend the annual family camping trip, often held in Milford, Mich., in August.

The family saw Marihugh a few weeks ago when he came home for his grandmother's funeral.

"He will be greatly missed," his cousin said.

Dave Marihugh said his cousin was often asked to make wedding speeches and give eulogies. He was usually someone you could count on to help build or move something, his cousin said.

"He was friendly with everyone," Dave Marihugh said.

In a statement, Capt. Pete Vasely said, "Both of these fierce warriors were admired and highly respected among everyone who knew them."

Lewis, 32, was from Queens, N.Y. His wife, who lives in Virginia Beach, has asked for privacy.

Marihugh, 34, was from Livonia, Mich. He is survived by his parents and siblings.

Dianna Cahn, 757-222-5846, dianna.cahn@pilotonline.com

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(c)2015 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Navy SEALs training.
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