Two divers exploring a ship wreck off the Eastbourne coast died after parts of their equipment failed while they were on the sea bottom, an inquest has heard.
Peter Stanning, 44, and Chris Mehegan, 45, were part of a ten-strong group of experienced divers who went out on the English Channel to see the SS Persiana, a wreckage a few miles south east of Beachy Head, on June 14, 2014.
The joint inquest, held at Eastbourne Magistrates’ Court on Monday, March 9, heard how the group had set off from Brighton Marina on the sunny Saturday morning and after arriving at their destination, had made their preparations and entered the water with no problems at all.
Mr Stanning, who lived in London, was paired up with his wife Diane and they descended some 50m to the wreckage before exploring for around 20 minutes. It was then that they both noticed a problem with Mr Stanning’s handset, which was reading oxygen levels of 0.8 when it should be around 1.2 or 1.3. The 44-year-old began manually injecting oxygen into his rebreather while beginning an ascent.
However, just moments later, Diane noticed her husband’s mouth piece had become slack. She tried to put a bailout regulator into his mouth but he began convulsing and his teeth were clamped. She tried taking Mr Stanning to the surface but was unable to control their buoyancy at the same time and they began sinking. With no other choice, Mrs Stanning began her ascent so she could get help for her husband.
During that time, four of the other divers from the group came across Mr Stanning lying on his back on the sea floor. At first, they thought he was messing about but upon closer inspection, they saw bubbles coming from his mouth piece and knew something was wrong.
Between the four of them, they inflated his suit and managed to send him up towards the surface.
Shaken up, the remaining divers began their ascent.
Pawel Szopinski, who was paired up with Mr Mehegan during the dive, told the court, “We agreed we were going to ascend. We prepared the bags, it took us a little time because we were all quite shaken.
“Chris wasn’t in a happy place, his breathing was heavy, then there was a boom. It was an equipment fail.
“There were bubbles surrounding him. He managed to stop the leak by shutting off one of the cylinders. We continued the ascent for five minutes. He was still breathing very hard. I could tell he wasn’t very comfortable.
“I think he found himself unable to deal with the situation, he lost his buoyancy. There was a 50/50 chance he would make it if he went for the surface. He took his mouth piece out, looked at me, looked at the surface, and then went upwards.
“He threw his regulator out of his mouth. He was basically holding his breath until he gets to the surface. If he had his regulator in, he may have still been breathing when he got to the surface.
“If he stays in the water, he would drown, so I think it was a conscious decision to go to the surface.”
Stephen Johnson, who was skipper and owner of the Channel Diver, had stayed on the boat while the ten men and women went diving. He told the court of the first moment he knew something was wrong.
“I was sitting on the back deck, the engine was running. Two markers came up after about 20-25 minutes. I thought the visibility was bad, so they came up.
“The two marker buoys came up and started drifting away, so I went with the marker buoys, but I knew there was a problem straight away.
“A diver was lying like a starfish, face up, with no movement at all. He was in a position he shouldn’t be in. I called a mayday straight away.
“I went over to him. His face mask was full of blood and there was foam. I pulled him on board. I removed his diving equipment and commenced CPR.
“This must have carried on for 20 minutes, then another diver appeared near the shot line. It wasn’t until I got closer I could see he was upside down and the loop wasn’t in his mouth.
“I pulled Chris upward by his loop. His eyes were bulging, like saucers. I pulled him onto the lift and started compressions.
“I had assistance coming from other vessels, one with a medical team that administered CPR. Then the helicopter came and took them both to hospital.”
All the divers has supplied their own kit for the dive and this was analysed by diving experts following their death.
David Crockford, a diving expert from International Training Ltd, analysed Mr Stanning’s equipment. He told the court there were three cells in the handset Mr Stanning was using, which would have been used to tell him his oxygen levels.
It is recommended the cells are changed every 18 months. However, the cells in Mr Stanning’s handset were five years and four months old, three years and three months old and one year and nine months old. Mr Crockford confirmed this would likely have caused issues with the accuracy of the device’s oxygen readings.
He told the court how the low reading on Mr Stanning’s handset had been incorrect and the oxygen level had been sufficient. Therefore, when the 44-year-old injected more oxygen into his unit, it became too much and resulted in oxygen poisoning. The post-mortem examination gave his cause of death as drowning due to oxygen toxicity.
Martin Parker, a diving expert from Ambient Pressure Diving Ltd, analysed Mr Mehegan’s equipment. He also had the advantage of video footage following the retrieval of a Go-Pro camera fitted to Pawel Szopinski’s diving suit.
After looking at the equipment, he confirmed it was an inflator hose that had burst, causing the leak underwater.
Upon closer examination, he found the hose had not been the one that originally came with the rest of the kit, it had been manually added at a later date. This had caused problems as the hose was too big for the small fittings, so had been cut slightly in order to fit into the small holding. Over time, the holding had cut away at the hose, allowing water to get inside. This had caused the pressure build-up that eventually forced the hose to burst.
Mr Parker told the court how that alone probably wouldn’t have resulted in Mr Mehegan’s death. However, it had increased his state of panic and although the diver was taking all the right actions following the equipment fail, he wasn’t doing them in the right order and became even more distressed.
After slowing the video down, Mr Parker agreed that the 45-year-old had made the conscious decision to bolt for the surface.
A post-mortem examination gave his cause of death as a diffuse gas embolism and pulmonary barotrauma - where gas expands in the lungs. It can be caused by rising to the surface with speed and not exhaling enough.
Coroner Alan Craze recorded a conclusion of accidental death. He said, “This is a devastating personal tragedy for families left behind and all the people involved. I would like to offer my sincere condolences to you all.”
A fellow diver sat in the court spoke up to say, “Both men were proper gentlemen and very good divers.”
Mrs Stanning also told of her relief that changes have been made to ensure manufacturing dates are made more clear on diving handsets, so people know when they need to change the cells inside.