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Two Navy divers, out of reach

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (March. 14, 2013) Cmdr. Michael Runkle, commanding officer of Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit (MDSU) 2, delivers remarks during a memorial service 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.

Editor’s note: This story was based on court testimony, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with unit members, witnesses and lawyers.
 

The pond at Aberdeen Proving Ground was awash in the sounds of a military dive site: the thud of heavy equipment on a floating barge, air cylinders clanging against one another, the muffled tones and beeps of hand-held radio communications.

Navy divers readied their dry suits, prepping for a day of diving in 40-degree water on that February morning in Maryland.

The sailors were at the Army ordnance testing site for a series of evaluation dives ahead of deployment. The first dive of the day, to retrieve lost weapons, was under way in shallow water outside the main pond.

The real excitement was still to come: a 150-foot dive into the center of the pond to locate a downed helicopter.

This is what Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 trained for – diving deep to locate and retrieve wreckage. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was something most of them were eager to do, a job they would actually be called on to perform.

They didn’t know that every decision they made on the pond that afternoon of Feb. 26, 2013, would later be scrutinized, every action and reaction analyzed. That they would replay those 24 agonizing minutes of increasing desperation over and over again, hoping every time for a different outcome.

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The night before the dives, Diana Reyher hung up the phone, worried about her husband.

She’d never seen him this despondent. James was the positive one – always smiling – the one who could say “don’t worry” and really make her believe that everything would be all right.

Being the wife of a Navy diver, she was always scared. She knew the dangers he faced: decompression sickness, running out of air. Equipment troubles.

James had always thrived on the risks. His face would light up when he talked about his Navy job. But things had changed since the high school sweethearts moved to Virginia Beach the year before.

James no longer looked forward to going to work. The unit at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek was so unlike his old dive locker in Everett, Wash. There, his unit had been like his family – their family.

He felt like MDSU2 lacked camaraderie.

After a grueling day that began at 4 a.m. in Virginia Beach and ended at Aberdeen, he vented his frustrations. It was dinnertime, and there was no food in the barracks. Some of the more senior men had gone to buy groceries and left him behind. He was tired, hungry and fed up.

“I want to come home,” he told her.

Diana borrowed one of her husband’s lines to soothe him: “It will be OK.”

___

Senior Chief James Burger, the master diver of Company 2-3, had trained his men hard ahead of the evaluation, putting them in simulators to recognize the hazards of deep diving and acclimating them to cold-water dry suits.

A deeply knowledgeable and respected master diver, Burger was a family man who’d raised his own two children and embraced his wife Donna’s four.

A somber and reserved leader who had not developed strong personal relationships with his men, Burger was often overshadowed by more forceful leaders in the unit. The new commanding officer, Cmdr. Michael Runkle, was unpopular and perceived as disengaged and overbearing. Runkle’s deputies – the executive officer and command master chief – were also distrusted and seen as mean-spirited.

A month earlier, a command climate survey left no doubt that morale in the unit was low and sailors lacked faith in their leaders.

Most recently, Runkle had decided that the head of the Readiness and Training department – Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jason Bennett, who had designed the Aberdeen dives – would not attend the evaluation. Instead, Bennett’s deputy, a man who’d never led this kind of exercise, would be in charge.

The decision rankled Bennett and his department. They objected, but Runkle stayed firm.

Under that cloud – and with the knowledge that a civilian diver had drowned at this pond a month earlier – Company 2-3 prepared to dive.

The site supervisor briefed them on the conditions: cold, fresh water, reaching a center depth of 150 feet. A bottom laden with debris and wires, coated with a layer of silt that could – if kicked up – severely impede already limited visibility.

Yes, there was some chance of getting tangled at the bottom, he said. Yes, there had been a death here recently. But in all, he assured them, the pond was a safe, controlled environment.

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The divers were already suiting up when Burger told them to stop. Some of the diving equipment they’d planned to use – a breathing apparatus known as a Mark 16 – wasn’t working.

Burger talked with Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mark Smith, the company’s officer in charge, and two senior evaluators to determine what to do.

They could use the standard surface-supplied air, which was on the barge and was the safest and easiest way to breathe underwater, but Runkle had pushed for using the Mark 16 on a deep dive. There was also an obstruction blocking the barge, which was set up for a task later in the day. Clearing it meant they might risk Runkle’s wrath by changing the order of the exercise.

The other option was scuba. But that would mean no audio communications between the divers and the surface. And, with single tanks of air on their backs, would they have enough?

The leaders did some calculations. Scuba would work, but only for a quick “bounce” scenario, where the divers go down, spot the helicopter and come straight back.

It was doable, the leaders agreed. The dive was set for 10 minutes, and each diver had at least 14 minutes of air.

Smith called back to base to seek approval from Bennett.

On the other end of the phone line, Bennett fumed. As the head of training, he often butted heads with senior commanders when he disagreed with their judgments. But when Runkle ordered him to stay behind, he’d essentially been stripped of his authority over the training.

The dive manual specifies that a scuba dive to 150 feet requires permission of the commanding officer or officer in charge, Smith said.

“Well, which one are you?” Bennett retorted, throwing the decision back at Smith. The conversation was over.

They would go with scuba.

___

Smith lined up the divers and looked them each in the eye. “Are you OK with this dive?” he asked. Each one nodded.

Then he and Burger ordered the first two to suit up and board the inflatable boat that took them to the center of the pond. With them were the dive supervisor – Petty Officer 1st Class Fernando Almazon – an evaluator, someone to tend the line linking the divers to the surface, and a stand-by diver.

Burger stayed back on the barge with the radio, and two additional teams of divers, who wondered among themselves whether scuba made any sense when they had better equipment at their disposal.

It’s all so rushed, the divers agreed. So much change with so little time to plan.

The first two divers went down to about 110 feet before their tending line got tangled on the boat. Unable to untangle it fast enough, Almazon ordered the divers up.

On the barge, Burger told the next two divers, Petty Officer 1st Class James Reyher and Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Harris, to get ready.

Reyher was a 28-year-old from Caldwell, Ohio – one of seven kids – who planned to one day take over his father’s natural gas business. A bit of a troublemaker as a child, he had grown up a lot in the two years since he’d joined the Navy and married Diana.

Harris, 23, grew up in Gladstone, Mo. He was married and had two little girls. His older daughter, Sophia, was 3 and she adored him, holding a possessive arm around her daddy’s shoulder in pictures.

Harris and Reyher were two of the more experienced divers in the company. The tending line slid down behind them as they entered the water. When they reached the bottom of the pond – just over a minute later – they signaled to the line tender with a tug on the rope.

At the four-minute mark, Almazon told the line tender to send down four tugs, letting the divers know it was time to come up. They didn’t respond, so he ordered the four tugs again.

Line tugs came up, but they seemed erratic. Then the line went taut. There were bubbles coming to the surface, so the men were breathing. But clearly, there was a problem.

“Is this a drill?” Almazon asked the evaluator, as the tender fed down some slack. It wasn’t.

Almazon turned to the stand-by diver, Petty Officer 2nd Class Austin Noone, and told him to follow Reyher and Harris’ tending line to the bottom.

The men had been in the water about 4 1/2 minutes.

___

On a small boat nearby, pond supervisor Bill Mullis watched things unfold. He turned to the evaluator in his boat and echoed Almazon: “Is this a drill?” he asked, before calling emergency medical services.

Noone got just past 100 feet when he started to spin and got tangled in one of the lines. Then his regulator – the breathing apparatus that controls the tank’s air flow – stopped working properly.

By the time he surfaced, his regulator had frozen over and the connection to the tank was rapidly losing air. He emerged tangled, unable to breathe and dazed.

On the boat, Almazon told the tender to stop paying out the line to Reyher and Harris.

“I know what they want!” the tender insisted. “They want more line.”

Almazon said no. Pulling the line taut could impede communications with the troubled divers. But if it wasn’t tight, the rescue divers could get tangled in it.

___

Burger got a small boat ready and turned to the third set of divers on the barge. Harris and Reyher were underwater and unresponsive, he told them. One rescue diver has already gone down.

“Are you ready to go?” he asked.

Petty Officer 1st Class Spencer Puett nodded. So did his diving buddy, Petty Officer 3rd Class Nicholas Carson, the most junior diver in the unit.

They scurried onto the boat and raced to the center of the pond.

Nearly 15 minutes had gone by. Almazon repeated the instructions he’d given the first rescue diver, this time with more urgency.

“You gotta go down this line,” Almazon told them. “You gotta get these guys. They’ve got no air.”

Puett was nervous. He considered himself a strong diver, but he’d never seen anything like this before. It was all happening so fast.

He jumped in and started his descent. It was pure black. All he could hear was his own heavy breathing – too heavy.

He began to feel light-headed and panicked. He felt a tug but couldn’t quite figure out what he was supposed to do.

Carson, who was tethered to him, swam up and gave him a questioning “OK?” signal. Puett signaled “OK” back, but when Carson tried to continue his descent, Puett didn’t budge.

“I am going to become part of the problem,” Puett thought. He signaled to Carson, and the two men ascended. They’d made it to just over 100 feet.

By the time they came up, the air bubbles from Reyher and Harris had stopped.

___

“What happened?” Almazon asked.

“We couldn’t get to them,” Puett said.

Desperate, Almazon threw the tending line over to Burger’s boat. Shifting it somehow forced the line free. Reyher and Harris were brought to the surface and rushed to a recompression chamber.

They’d been under for 24 minutes. It was too late.

___

When they stood before a judge for a pretrial hearing in June, Burger and Smith faced charges of negligent manslaughter and dereliction of duty.

An investigating officer recommended that the charges be dismissed. Smith may have made an error in judgment, the investigating officer wrote, but there were no grounds for criminal prosecution of either man.

Not satisfied, the head of Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group 2 proceeded with administrative punishment against Burger, Smith and three men from the training department, accusing each of dereliction of duty. Among them was Bennett, who’d been ordered not to go to Aberdeen that day.

Smith accepted the nonjudicial punishment. The four others opted to face court-martial. But one by one, the men relented until only Burger went on trial. The others were granted immunity to testify.

All stated that they stood by the dive and Burger’s actions.

All expect this will end their careers.

Runkle, who was later relieved of command, testified too, also under a grant of immunity.

On Jan. 17, a four-man jury found Burger guilty – for not putting proper safeguards in place.

Only later did the jury learn that the regulators used by Harris and Reyher that day both failed repeated tests in cold, fresh water at a simulated depth of 150 feet.

The Navy had approved the regulators for all cold water dives. But before the deaths, it had never tested them in fresh water – only in salt water. It has since removed them from the list of equipment approved for deep diving in cold water.

No one at the site that day had any reason to suspect the regulators would fail.

___

Burger’s colleagues say he was not to blame. Most experts say that any diver whose regulator fails at 150 feet with limited air would be doomed.

Burger remained stoic throughout the trial. His wife, Donna, told the court that her husband is depressed and now spends much of his time alone.

Before he was sentenced – the jury recommended reducing him one rank to chief petty officer – Burger spoke briefly.

“Not a day goes by, not an hour, not a second that James and Ryan aren’t on my mind,” he said. “James and Ryan were great men and I am truly sorry.”

The words are little solace to Diana Reyher, who can’t stop thinking about the anxious phone call she got from her husband the night before he died.

His unit failed him, she told the court.

She spoke through sobs.

“He didn’t have these guys watching his back.”

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

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Editor’s note: This story was based on court testimony, documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with unit members, witnesses and lawyers.

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