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Super Pond diver, heroic to the last breath, to get Navy and Marine Corps Medal

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.

As they slowly asphyxiated at the bottom of a pond last year, two Navy divers shared something extraordinary: the choice to die together rather than abandon a fellow sailor.

That selflessness went with Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Harris and Petty Officer 1st Class James Reyher to their deaths on Feb. 26, 2013 — undiscovered until a Navy investigator reconstructed the events.

The investigation, conducted more than 16 months ago, was released last week to The Virginian-Pilot under the Freedom of Information Act. It pinpointed a series of failures that contributed to the training accident that day at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland: bad leadership, poor decision-making and faulty equipment.

But none of that could blunt the heroism that the investigator discovered between the two drowning men: With Reyher trapped by debris at the bottom of the pond, Harris remained at his side, struggling to free his buddy until both men died.

"Harris exhausted himself in an attempt to save Reyher," the investigator concluded. "Both divers resisted the natural instincts of self-preservation, in order to expel his last breaths in an effort to save each other."

That heroism will be honored in coming months, when the Navy posthumously awards Harris the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.

In a report detailing the unfolding events, the investigator painted a scene in which a hitch in planned exercises on the day of the accident unleashed one problem after another. Lines got tangled, equipment failed and, ultimately, catastrophe struck.

The Virginia Beach-based Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit Two was conducting a series of pre-deployment training exercises at the pond. It was a gray day, just 40 degrees, and visibility in the pond was poor.

The men were supposed to locate a sunken helicopter 150 feet below the surface, using a breathing apparatus known as the Mark 16. But some of the equipment wasn't working so the officers in charge of the dive considered other options.

They had surface-supplied air on a barge that would have allowed divers a limitless air supply and audio communications while submerged. But the barge was blocked by a barrier set up for a later exercise, and the leaders at the pond were reluctant to call the commanding officer -- who was subsequently fired for being unapproachable and disengaged -- and seek permission to change the entire day's training plan.

So the leaders -- in what the investigation described as "multiple points of failure and decision making" -- decided to modify the dive and use scuba gear. They calculated that a single canister of air for each diver would be adequate for a quick dive down to the helicopter and directly back up again.

The decision left the divers with "insufficient air capacity" to respond to unforeseen problems.

Reyher and Harris were the second team to try the dive. The first team's ropes got tangled, and the divers aborted their attempt.

In a scenario based on what took place on the surface and the conditions of the men's bodies and equipment after they were recovered, the investigator reconstructed the events under the water.

Harris and Reyher were among the most experienced divers in the unit. But even before they submerged, things started going wrong. They were unable to connect to the descent line and started their dive connected only to each other and to the boat.

Harris was directly connected to the boat with a tending line and was responsible for sending line pull signals up to the surface. Reyher was connected to Harris with 7 feet of line between them.

The two descended without incident, and Harris sent up a series of line pulls indicating that they'd reached their target.

The bottom was dark, strewn with debris from prior exercises and ordnance training, allowing them just a foot or two of visibility. Silt lined the pond floor and would further limit visibility if disturbed.

The men were going through their air faster than the calculations had estimated.

Moments after they reached bottom, a signal from sailors on the surface indicated it was time to start their ascent.

That's probably when Harris and Reyher realized they had problems, the investigator concluded. Reyher's breathing apparatus had started leaking air, causing it to freeze, so he switched over to his backup regulator, hoping to stem the leak.

Meanwhile, he'd somehow gotten tangled at the bottom of the pond.

Harris tried to help. He wrapped some of the line connecting him to Reyher around his arm, straining to try and pull his buddy free. Soon their air was running low.

Up above, attempts to reach the divers were failing. A rescue diver made it to 100 feet before his apparatus malfunctioned. Harris and Reyher had run out of air by the time the next pair of divers jumped in. They didn't make it to the bottom, either.

As he watched his air supply disappear, Harris could have cut the line connecting him to Reyher. That would have freed him. But neither man ever pulled out their knives, the investigator concluded.

After the second failed rescue, divers on the surface started pulling at the line in a last-ditch attempt to bring them to the surface. The rope was stuck. By shifting the line to another boat, they managed to free it and pull them up.

Harris and Reyher were both lifeless when they were brought to the surface 31 minutes after they started their dive. Reyher's equipment was caked in mud; the condition of his body indicated he likely ran out of air first.

After the deaths, both breathing rigs were sent to the Navy Experimental Diving Unit and tested in conditions mimicking those at the pond that day. Both failed in repeated tests, prompting the Navy to remove the breathing gear -- the Apeks TX50 -- from the list of equipment authorized for Navy divers' use in cold water.

The investigation found that poor leadership and bad decision-making plagued events that day -- everything from the choice to switch to scuba, to how leaders assessed the risks, to a lack of good emergency plans.

But no single factor directly caused the deaths. Instead, bad luck conspired to turn faulty leadership into tragedy.

In February, the unit's master diver was found guilty in a court-martial of dereliction of duty for not ensuring there were adequate safety procedures. Of five men the unit held accountable, he was the only one to choose a court-martial.

In his conclusion, the investigating officer -- whose name was redacted from the report -- determined that Harris could have done a number of things to save his own life: He could have used his backup breathing regulator to get to his reserve air; he or Reyher could have pulled out their knives to cut the line connecting them. They could have tried to inflate their vests or release the weights that held them below the surface.

They did none of those things, and Harris died alongside Reyher at the bottom of the pond.

dianna.cahn@pilotonline.com

 

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