By Trevor Jackson - Esperance Star
(The following story is a true story. Versions of the incident differ greatly in Brisbane, Australia. This version is the one generally agreed on in Luganville, Espirito Santo, Vanuatu, by independent and reliable sources. The incident took place on the wreck of the President Coolidge in September 1996. My sincere thanks go to the staff of both Aquamarine and Santo Dive Tours for their help in verifying this story]
On the bridge of the Esperance Star, on the left-hand side looking forward, is a list of names on brass plaques. The individual plaques are screwed into the timber window frame and the uppermost plaque reads, 'G List'. The names beneath are those of divers who have shown exceptional skills in diving in one form or another and a common question is, "How do you get on the list?" The first name on the list is Carl Watson. Readers of these articles will be familiar with the name, as he has been a crewman of the boat through some of our adventures. When people ask me how do you get on the list, I start at the top and tell them this story.
In 1996 Carl was a Divemaster working for Pro Dive Milton, a very predominant dive operator in Brisbane. He was experienced and he was capable. In September of that year Carl was on a trip to Vanuatu to do some diving. He was not acting as a DM or guide on the trip, he was just there for fun. The first few days of the holiday were spent in Vila, then the group flew to Santo to do the Coolidge. After a few days diving the wreck Carl and two others planned a dive to the stern using three scooters they had hired from Allan Powers. Carl's dive buddies, Brett and Debbie were both instructors. The plan was fairly loose, down to the bow, along the starboard rail to about the swimming pool, then down and around the stern, which lies at approximately 70 metres.
A few minutes into the dive Carl was on the starboard rail above the swimming pool and was surprised to see Brett and Debbie well below him checking out tiles on the pools edge. When Carl joined his buddies they went down to around 68 metres and then made their way back up to the pool when trouble started. Brett appeared to be having trouble breathing. He started studying his reg, then started to take off his scuba unit. Just then he started to convulse, spat out the reg and lost consciousness.
It's the type of situation that every diver would dread, around 55metres down, half an hour or so of deco owing and a choice. Inflate the unconscious divers BC and let him go (probably to drown anyway) or escort him to the surface, Carl chose the latter.
"I swam the few yards over to Brett, he'd dropped his scuba unit and lost his mask. He had on only his yellow and black lycra suit,a pair of fins and his dive computer. He'd also dropped his scooter." With the decision made to make for the surface, Carl still kept his wits about him.
"Its something I'll never forget. Brett was out to it and he was shaking. He was having some type of fit and his arms and legs were spread-eagled making him tough to maneuver. I was breathing off my Air 2 and trying to get my primary first stage into his mouth but it was hopeless. I couldn't make him breathe down there and I knew that every second underwater was critical but I still tried not to bolt up uncontrollably. I guess the whole ascent took about a minute and a half, and we were still 300 metres from the shore, we were lucky it was a calm day."
On the surface the situation hadn't improved much. "When we started the dive we all had Apollo AV1 Scooters, Brett had dropped his down there but Debbie and I still had ours, I thrust mine towards Deb and told her to try and inflate a sausage to get the attention of the guys on the beach. Brett was still unconscious and not breathing. I started mouth to mouth and before to long the guys from the shore had made it out there. Brett had started breathing by now so I pushed him towards the two blokes and they dragged him in. I was totally exhausted. He still hadn't woken up, I didn't know if he ever would again."
On shore, Carl, Brett and Debbie were bundled into the back of a ute and raced along the pot-holed track up to the hospital overlooking Luganville.
"The people at the hospital were in a bit of a state. They'd never seen anything like this and for a while it seemed that they didn't know what to do. The only oxygen in town was down at the Aquamarine dive shop. Someone brought it up but there was only one bottle so we had to share it. Brett had regained consciousness at the hospital but I don't know when. Things were becoming a bit of a blur and I was starting to feel some joint pain which to be honest really didn't set in fully until we got to the airport in Brisbane early the next day."
A Lear Jet picked up the three divers at Santo airport at about 1am. The following morning they were transported to Sydney via Brisbane. All showed symptoms of DCS. Carl spent three days in the chamber but to this day has never fully recovered from tissue damage. It is also worthy of note that Brett's gear was never recovered, but the three Scooters, although lost during and/or after the rescue, were.
It is difficult to determine exactly how much of a decompression obligation the divers had incurred and subsequently skipped. Using a well-known software program, about 25 to 30 minutes is about my best guess. Although the actual bottom time at the stern was minimal, the slow descent down the gradual angle of a 654ft long wreck would mean the divers were already into deco before reaching their turn around point, let alone back up at 55 metres where the ****** started.
As I stated earlier there is a fair amount of bullshit surrounding this incident. Bickering by insurance companies over who would pay for the medivac flight delayed the divers relocation to Sydney by some considerable time, a delay that more than likely contributed to Carl's ongoing joint problems. And as so often happens in situations like this, egos and assumptions have gotten in the way of fact.
Moreover, I have it on good authority that this incident is now spoken of worldwide in medical circles within the diving realm as a solid example of Oxygen Toxicity and its resulting effects. Carl's efforts are regarded simultaneously as both heroic and foolhardy. In recreational diving circles, Carl Watson's rescue of Brett is both legendary and without peer.
If you asked him today if he would do the same thing again, he would most certainly answer, ....'NO WAY'.....
Those of us lucky enough to number him amongst our list of dive buddies scoff loudly at this response.