Hawaii-area Coast Guard divers hone skills ahead of annual inspection
By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: September 7, 2017
HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — Coast Guard divers jumped off the pier at Coast Guard Base Honolulu on Wednesday wearing nearly 32-pound steel “hard hats” connected to air lines in training dives to prepare for an annual inspection next week.
Two of those divers were on the polar icebreaker Healy in late July making the first Arctic dives off the cutter since a fatal accident in 2006 in which two Coast Guard divers plummeted to 187 feet and at least 220 feet in 29-degree water.
The divers were hauled to the surface with no vital signs. Autopsies later showed they died from a lack of oxygen and severe air pressure damage to their lungs, according to the Coast Guard.
An overhaul of the Coast Guard diver program following the tragedy led to the establishment of three regional “dive lockers” in Honolulu, San Diego and Portsmouth, Va., to centralize control, training and operations. A specific diver rating also was created to replace the mix of duties Coast Guard divers had before, officials said.
The 15-diver Regional Dive Locker Pacific in Honolulu, created in 2015, is still in what’s known as initial operating capability, but those capabilities have grown exponentially since the days of mainly scuba diving in the Coast Guard, the service said.
The divers training Wednesday were hooked up to what’s known as an “extreme lightweight diving system” that routes air from tanks through air lines. Coast Guard divers now have hydraulic tools and underwater cutting capability, hand-held and towable sonar, and remotely operated vehicle capabilities.
“We’re definitely more well-rounded in our subsurface capabilities,” said Chief Warrant Officer Chandler Tyre, command diving officer for Regional Dive Locker Pacific.
The Coast Guard said its divers follow Navy dive rules and are trained at the same school for all military divers — the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center in Panama City Beach, Fla.
Diver 1st Class David Bradbury, who was one of two Honolulu-based divers on the Healy for its largely scientific mission to the Arctic, was able to see imagery taken by a remotely operated vehicle of a sunken fishing vessel that was being investigated in the frigid waters more than 200 feet deep.
“That’s another mission we do — we run the ROVs,” Bradbury said.
The 36-year-old Orlando man, who participated in Wednesday’s training, also got in four dives in the 32-degree Arctic water wearing what are known as drysuits with insulating clothing underneath.
“It was absolutely amazing. It’s the clearest water I’ve ever dove in my life,” Bradbury said. “Coming from Hawaii I usually think of this as the purest water, and getting there (in the Arctic), since it’s so cold, there’s no growth. So the visibility — we call it unlimited.”
Bradbury dove off a small boat and off the Healy itself, and even though he descended to only about 30 feet on the tethered dives, he was able to swim beneath some ice floes. “It was one of those memories that I’ll have forever,” he said.
He also participated in the delivery of a wooden plaque to the deep in memory of the two Coast Guard divers who lost their lives in 2006 — Lt. Jessica Hill, 31, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Steven Duque, 26.
“That dive was somber, but it was also a point we can look at and see where we’ve gone from there,” Bradbury said.
In an “all hands” message following the accident, then-Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Thad Allen said the “bottom line is that this dive should have never happened,” adding, “The investigation revealed numerous departures from standard Coast Guard policy that should have precluded diving under the circumstances.”
The joint dive team on the Healy’s trip to the Arctic this summer was made up of Coast Guard personnel from San Diego and Honolulu and Navy divers who brought a recompression chamber aboard the icebreaker.
Tyre said in the Coast Guard’s District 14, which includes Hawaii and Guam, divers are used regularly on buoy tenders in maintenance on aids to navigation. Some channels are narrow and to avoid a grounding and damage to marine environments, divers can be deployed to check underwater and inspect buoy chains, he said.
On Wednesday, Coast Guard divers jumped off the pier at the Sand Island base into waters about 30 feet with a bottom of silty mud. At least six other Coast Guard members are always on shore in case a diver gets into trouble, officials said.
One of the training dives simulated two divers receiving bad air that made them pass out — and requiring another diver to jump into the water and others on shore to haul them out by the lines attached to their backpack harnesses.
Diver 1st Class Brendon Ballard, 26, who was the other Honolulu-based diver to make the July Arctic dives, went through the somewhat involved process that comes with just donning the nearly 32-pound dive helmet before heading into the water to be hauled out by the pier team.
“You can feel the weight when you are on the surface, but once you get into the water it’s not that bad,” the Ohio man said.
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