Lake 'pitch black' when divers died

MICHELLE ROBINSON
Last updated 14:33 20/08/2012
Divers

TRAGEDY: Searchers recovered the bodies of two divers who died in Lake Pupuke at Takapuna last year.

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A dive specialist has recalled a chilling encounter of being tangled in rope and mud at the bottom of Lake Pupuke and not knowing which way was up on the day two dive students drowned.

Dive control specialist Tangata Vaikai was speaking at the inquest into the deaths of Daniel Waata Stoneham, 33, and Tyrone North, 37, who died during dive training at the North Shore lake on a course run by Helix Training on July 15 last year.

An inquest by coroner Gordon Matenga into the fatalities began this morning and is expected to last two days.

Vaikai said he and fellow specialist Rawiri Anderson were at the lake to assist lead instructor Teauriki Nicholas Tuaana in what was meant to be a 39m deep dive with five students.

Vaikai was first to enter the water, diving to 5m to secure a litre container to the drop line. He resurfaced to tell Tuaana how dark it was.

He said it was the instructor's call to decide whether to proceed.

Vaikai said visibility was not bad enough to call off the dive, but said the depth could have been readjusted to suit.                      

Vaikai and Anderson dived last to keep an eye on the students but soon lost sight of them.

They both described terrifying scenes of becoming disorientated and panicking.

Vaikai said he hit the bottom of the crater lake and became "confused" and "disorientated" because of a lack of visibility.

He said the water was "pitch black" and no-one had torches with them.

"I realised I was at bottom because I could feel mud. To my surprise the line was slack, I thought it was broken or everyone else was tugging on it," Vaikai said.

He said he did not know which way was up or down and that he was suffering nitrogen narcosis or decompression sickness and started hyperventilating.

"I knew I was going through air really quickly because of how I was breathing."

He managed to get himself slowly back to the surface.

Anderson earlier described similar panic at the rapidly declining visibility, and seeing students rush past him even though they were supposed to descend at the same rate as their instructor.

Anderson's gear showed he had dived to a depth of 57 metres without knowing.

"It looked like one person was descending much faster than the others, it looked like Tyrone."

After 30m Anderson said he "couldn't see anything at all".

"I was starting to panic, I thought what the hell am I doing... I spat the regulator out a couple of times as I was ascending."

He felt a diver descending past him and tried to hold onto him but he slipped past.

At the surface he saw the least experienced student shoot up beside him, Ralph Henry, who was panicking.

"Ralph was deep breathing and panicking... 'take this s*** off me, take this s*** off me'. I pulled his mask off and loosened his wetsuit."

Anderson swam Henry back to shore where Tuaana was calling an ambulance. Anderson then learned that Stoneham and North were still missing.

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DIVE INSTRUCTOR WEEPS 

Earlier today Helix dive instructor Teauriki Nicholas Tuaana said the dive started out like any other but things went wrong when his students passed him on descent in what was meant to be a 39m dive.

"They were dropping faster than me, I looked up to see if anyone was above me, by the time I looked down I couldn't see them."

The Lake Pupuke exercise was a voluntary deep dive. The students had completed a 15-week course including a search and rescue dive and night diving.

Visibility was poor and divers did not have torches or cutting equipment as is regulation, the inquest heard.

Tuaana said this was because he "forgot".

Some divers had also supplied their own gear, which was checked several times, and they were well aware of safety protocol and the risks involved.

Stoneham's sister Sheree Stoneham asked Tuaana whether the approach to the dive was more relaxed than usual, and whether the students respected him.

"I know Daniel did, he talked about you," he replied.

Tuaana wept as he denied suggestions his students were trying to impress him by reaching the bottom first.

He said he instructed them to keep in sight of him while following the line down.

In January the Department of Labour released a statement saying no action would be taken against Helix Training and that investigations had determined there had been no breach of the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

The inquest continues.

- Auckland Now

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