'Everything ... went wrong' as two Navy divers died
By MATTHEW HAY BROWN | The Baltimore Sun | Published: June 20, 2013
The dive that claimed the lives of two members of an elite Navy team wasn't the only thing that went wrong that February day at Aberdeen Proving Ground's Super Pond, witnesses testified during a military hearing Wednesday.
First, the underwater breathing units that the team took to Aberdeen failed, forcing the divers to change equipment. Then, the first two men into the water had to cut their dive short when the line that tethered them to their boat tangled.
That was when Diver 1st Class James Reyher and Diver 2nd Class Ryan Harris took their fatal plunge.
The standby diver who was sent down to check on the pair had his scuba regulator freeze solid — he was out of breath when he resurfaced. Two more rescue divers came back after one became disoriented in the cold, murky depths.
"Everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong for us," Petty Officer 1st Class Fernando Almazan, the dive supervisor, testified.
The hearing at this Navy base on the Chesapeake Bay provided a first public glimpse into the events that surrounded the deaths of Reyher, 29, and Harris, 22. The men drowned Feb. 26 during a training exercise at Aberdeen's Underwater Explosive Test Facility, known as the Super Pond.
The Navy is considering whether to file charges against two senior leaders in their company. Chief Warrant Officer 3rd Class Mark Smith, the officer in charge, and Dive Senior Chief James Burger, the dive master, could be charged with involuntary manslaughter and dereliction of duty.
Like Reyher and Harris, they were members of the elite Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2. The unit is based in Virginia Beach, but has made frequent use of the Super Pond.
The commander of their unit has been relieved of his duties. The Navy said last month that Cmdr. Michael Runkle had been relieved because of a "loss of confidence in his ability to command."
Smith and Burger are accused of ordering the divers to train "outside of normal working limits" and without "requisite operational necessity" or adequate safeguards.
Rear Adm. Mike Tillotson, commander of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, ordered the two-day Article 32 hearing to determine whether they will be formally charged.
Capt. Holiday Hanna, the investigating officer presiding over the preliminary hearing, will weigh evidence and produce a report for Tillotson, who then may refer the case to court-martial, order administrative sanctions or dismiss the case.
Reyher and Harris were the second and third divers to die at the Super Pond in less than a month. George H. Lazzaro Jr., a 41-year-old former Marine working as a contractor to the Army, died Jan. 30 while performing routine maintenance.
Almazan said Lazzaro's death was on the Navy divers' minds when they arrived at Aberdeen Proving Ground for five days of training. He said they were also concerned about what might be at the bottom of the Super Pond — "20 years of junk," he guessed.
The divers were to be evaluated in advance of a deployment that had been scheduled for April, Almazan said. The exercise on Feb. 26 was to swim 150 feet down from a small boat to a helicopter on the bottom of the Super Pond and resurface.
The water temperature was 41 degrees. Visibility, with flashlights, was one to two feet.
As the first pair prepared to dive, Almazan said, they found that two of their four Mark 16 rebreathers were not working.
Almazan recommended that they switch to surface-supplied air — air from the boat, forced down through hoses into the divers' helmets. But Smith and Burger told him the divers would use scuba tanks.
Navy Diver 1st Class Peter Kozminsky, one of the first two divers, testified that he had never dived to 150 feet. But he said he and his partner told Smith that they were comfortable with the exercise and jumped into the water.
They had descended to 105 feet when Almazan called them back to the surface, Kozminsky and Almazan testified. The divers' line had tangled.
Then Reyher and Harris jumped into the water, Almazan testified. They were connected to each other with a 6- to 10-foot "buddy line" and tethered to the boat with another.
They were in the water for about 31/2 minutes, Almazan said, when he directed the sailor holding their tether to pull the line four times — the signal to return to the surface. After 30 seconds with no response, he ordered another four pulls.
Now, Almazan said, the divers responded with four pulls and began to ascend. But after they had risen about 20 feet, he said, the line pulled taut, and drew back into the water. Then there were a series of pulls, Almazan said, and the line grew heavy.
Almazan ordered the standby diver into the water, but he returned to the surface, his regulator frozen. After he recovered his breath, he said "something was spinning him around," Almazan said.
The next two divers surfaced when one became disoriented. Finally, the sailors on the boat managed to pull up Reyher and Harris. They had been in the water for 24 minutes.
The divers were unresponsive. Kozminsky, who pulled Reyher into the boat and attempted CPR, and Kaylan Dueker, a special agent with the Navy Criminal Investigative Service, testified that Reyher had mud on his body, indicating that he had reached the bottom.
Testimony is scheduled to continue on Thursday.
Officials at Aberdeen Proving Ground say there had been no fatalities or serious injuries at the Super Pond until the deaths this year. Col. Gordon A. Graham, commander of the Aberdeen Test Center, suspended operations at the facility after the deaths of Reyher and Harris.
The Super Pond was built in the 1990s to give the Navy a place to conduct underwater explosion tests that would not harm fish or other aquatic creatures.
The 1,000-foot-long, 150-foot-deep pond, carved out of the bank of the Bush River, can withstand the equivalent of 4,100 pounds of TNT. It has been used to shock-test ships, submarines, torpedoes, missiles and other systems. It has also been used for training exercises.
Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 conducted salvage operations after the crashes of TWA Flight 800, Swiss Air Flight 111 and the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia; the collapse of the Interstate 35 West bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis; and the discovery of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor.
Members recently recovered an Air Force F-16 fighter that had crashed off the coast of Italy.