Two New Zealand divers had a straightforward dive plan: a 50-meter line descent on air. However, one of them perished at twice that depth on the gold wreck he had yearned to dive since he was a young lad, according to the findings of a New Zealand inquest, as reported by Diver Net.
590 gold ingots
On March 15, 2020, Woodrow “Woody” Pattinson, 36, passed away while scuba diving at the RMS Niagara wreck. In June 1940, the trans-Pacific liner perished off Northland after colliding with a German mine, losing 590 gold ingots in the process. Later, the majority of these were retrieved from the 100-meter-deep wreck.
According to a report on the inquiry by the NZ Herald, Pattinson’s friend Daniel Smyth, whose boat they were renting, had been a close friend since childhood and they frequently dove together.
Pushing the limits
Pattinson was an environmental scientist from Auckland who had received his PADI Open Water Diver certification just over a year before the fatal incident. He had also acquired five additional certifications, but he was not qualified to dive beyond 40m. Smyth, Pattinson’s friend, testified during the inquest that Pattinson enjoyed “pushing the limits a little bit” and had a history of deviating from dive plans. However, an instructor stated that he did not consider Pattinson to be a risk-taker during his training.
The night before the dive, Pattinson had attended a family birthday party but did not consume excessive amounts of alcohol. Prior to departing Marsden Marina around 1:30 PM, Pattinson and Smyth planned the dive over a glass of wine. Smyth claimed that both men consumed up to three beers while on the boat.
When the duo dove at around 4 o’clock, Pattinson’s blood alcohol level was about double the legal limit for driving under the influence of alcohol, according to post-mortem analysis.
‘Halfway to Niagara’
Pattinson had proposed that they take a dive down to 50 meters, claiming that they would have gone “halfway to the Niagara” if they did so. He had informed his girlfriend, who was also a diver, that he might not return that night because he was fulfilling his dream of exploring the sunken ship. Smyth later recounted that Pattinson had been speaking emotionally about death and reincarnation.
Pattinson had borrowed a regulator, fins, and other equipment from Smyth since he had previously travelled for the party and was using a rented 12-litre air tank. However, he did not have a dive computer. The two divers descended down the anchor line with several “safety stops” on the way. At a depth of 50 meters, Pattinson signalled to Smyth that he was alright, but they were soon distracted and disoriented by a large group of kingfish.
After the fish had swum away, Smyth noticed Pattinson below him on the line and followed him to avoid being separated. However, Smyth realized he was getting beyond the limits of air diving and stopped at 64 meters. Meanwhile, Pattinson had already descended another 5-10 meters deeper than Smyth.
Smyth eventually ascended and raised the alarm when Pattinson failed to surface. Despite the emergency services’ response, the deteriorating conditions made it impossible for police divers to search the wreck site for the next ten days. It wasn’t until 25 March that an ROV located Pattinson’s body lying on the Niagara wreck, with his fins missing.
The pathologist who examined Pattinson’s body reported that the cause of death was drowning, while a police diver confirmed that his equipment was properly configured. Following an investigation, the coroner, Alexander Ho, concluded that Pattinson’s death was accidental. He considered it possible that Pattinson, an inexperienced diver at such depths, may have been initially disoriented by the kingfish and could have been affected by nitrogen narcosis, oxygen toxicity, or panic, which may have been exacerbated by the alcohol in his system.
According to the coroner’s report, Pattinson’s judgment appeared to have been impaired, as he had neither dumped his weights nor inflated his BC to aid in his ascent. Additionally, his lack of training for diving to technical depths may have made it difficult for him to control his descent or stop himself. In light of this incident, the coroner recommended that divers should adhere to dive plans within their qualification levels, avoid drinking alcohol 8-10 hours before diving, be prepared to ditch their weights in an emergency, and ensure that there is a non-diver available on the boat as surface cover.
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Source: Diver net