Deaths Illustrate Scuba Diving Dangers

By PATRICK LESTER, The (Allentown) Morning Call | July 30, 2015

In the thrill-seeking world of scuba diving, Eugene Fleysher was seemingly as prepared as they come for a deep descent.

A licensed pilot and employee of the Yonkers Police Department in New York, the Saddle Brook, N.J., man had a love of underwater adventure. He logged numerous dives, was known for using top-notch equipment and paid strict attention to safety.

“My brother loved doing this,” Raisa Fishman said. “He was meticulous with every single detail. To him, safety was No. 1.”

Fleysher, 38, died nearly two years ago during one of his many dives at Dutch Springs recreation area in Lower Nazareth Township. Autopsy records indicate he had “extensive training and experience.” His sister said he had been diving for at least 10 years.

He was found unresponsive in the water Aug. 18, 2013, after making an ascent from about 30 feet, according to coroner records provided by Fishman. He was taken to St. Luke’s University Hospital in Fountain Hill, where he was pronounced dead.

Investigators say he accidentally drowned.

“They told us that his equipment was not properly maintained, which I don’t believe,” Fishman said. “This was such a shock.”

Two scuba divers preparing to dive into sea
Two scuba divers preparing to dive into sea

An autopsy report indicates Fleysher’s equipment was “poorly maintained and maladjusted.” A certified diving instructor and trainer told investigators that the death should be attributed to operator error.

Fleysher was one of at least 16 people who have died over the past 30 years while diving at the park, which has become one of the more popular destinations on the East Coast for longtime recreational divers and newcomers seeking industry-mandated certification. The average age of those who died is 41.

The latest diving-related death came June 16, when Lora J. Murphy, 41, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was found submerged and unresponsive in the water at the former quarry that was turned into a diving area in the early 1980s. The cause and manner of Murphy’s death remains under investigation by the Lehigh County coroner’s office.

One diver said Dutch Springs, owned by Stuart Schooley and his wife, Jane Wells Schooley, could do more to alert divers of the risks. Tom Kozlowski, a recreational diver from Bethlehem, said Dutch Springs should post signs indicating the number of fatalities it has had as a way to drive home warnings about the dangers.

Other longtime visitors to the Northampton County property call it one of the safer venues where they’ve taken the plunge.

Experts say divers should know the inherent risks that the sport presents when they sign up to do it. The World Recreational Scuba Training Council, the “mechanism for worldwide cooperation in reaching international consistency in minimum course training standard,” says applicants to a course “shall be informed of the inherent risks of scuba and shall sign appropriate forms acknowledging and assuming those risks prior to participating in water activities.”

The council was formed in 1999 by various training organizations, including five in the United States. Those organizations and the people they train must abide by the council’s rules.

Some say it’s the training – or lack thereof – and not businesses such as Dutch Springs that are more likely to lead to dives that result in accidents or death.

In an industry that polices itself without government regulation or diving area inspections, the onus is on divers and their trainers to ensure that those who go underwater are up to the task.

Unlike amusement park rides that are inspected by the state Department of Agriculture, there is no state department that monitors diving in Pennsylvania. There is no government oversight of the sport in the United States.

“The problem is, almost everybody that dies in a diving accident dies because they panic or do something stupid,” said Robert Croft of Easton, a former Navy scuba instructor who helped review death cases at Dutch Springs for the former Nazareth Area police in the 1980s. At the time, Croft described the two deaths and one accident as “three coincidences that are very unfortunate.”

“You can’t blame the place for what happened to these folks,” Croft said. “I know people will sue and say it’s dangerous. People die, but 99 percent of the time they panic or do something foolish.”

‘At my risk’

The Divers Alert Network, which calls itself the world’s largest association of recreational scuba divers, says 80-100 people die annually in diving accidents in North America. Those numbers are based on deaths that are reported to the organization. Many of those deaths occurred in oceans and rivers.

The network, in a 2011 report on scuba diving deaths, indicated the annual fatality rate for insured Divers Alert Network members was 16.4 per 100,000. There are an estimated 3 million divers in the United States, according to the organization.

Diving experts say a number of factors typically contribute to accidents and deaths. They include complacency, panic, medical problems or disobeying the sport’s No. 1 rule: diving with a buddy.

The divers network, which compiles reports on deaths submitted to it from around the world, says common factors associated with fatalities include running out of gas, entrapment or entanglement, buoyancy control, equipment misuse, rough water and emergency ascent.

It says asphyxia by drowning, air embolism – the blockage of an artery by an air bubble or clot – and cardiac events were the principal injuries or causes of death. The leading cause of disabling injuries was cardiac events.

At the 100-acre Dutch Springs recreation area, there have been 16 deaths since 1986, according to The Morning Call’s archives. It’s difficult to determine if that is a high or low number of deaths for one diving area. Because there is no regulatory agency overseeing the sport, statistics on diving deaths aren’t readily available.

“It is really next to impossible to quantify that,” said James Lapenta, a scuba trainer near Pittsburgh who tracks deaths in the industry based on media reports.

The Dutch Springs diving area – 50 acres of water and 50 acres of land – was approved by Lower Nazareth supervisors in 1980 as part of a three-phase recreational facility under the ownership of Recreational Concepts Development Corp.

It is about 100 feet at its deepest point and averages about 50 to 60 feet. Divers typically descend 45 feet to 60 feet. Some will do four or five dives in a day.

Submerged equipment at the facility includes two sunken cabin cruisers, a silo, a tank truck, utility poles and a sunken platform used for instructional exercises.

Stuart Schooley, an accountant and dive master who has done about 1,000 dives over 35 years, said Dutch Springs each year welcomes about 35,000 divers who pay a $40 admission fee. About 70,000 dives are done there annually.

He said every diver must sign a waiver upon entering or via the Dutch Springs website. They must also show proof of certification by a nationally recognized agency.

Those signing the release waive all claims for negligence, products liability or breach of warranty against Dutch Springs, including personal injury claims. By signing, visitors “acknowledge that utilization of the premises . for whatever permitted purposes is purely at my risk.”

Schooley says his staff checks the waiver forms and certification cards before allowing divers on the property. Instructors who bring students to the site for training and are responsible for those students must show proof of liability insurance.

After two deaths at Dutch Springs during a less-than-three-week period in 1986, Schooley contemplated getting out of the business. He ultimately decided to keep Dutch Springs and instituted a safety patrol.

Up to four or five dive masters or instructors are on hand to patrol the shores and look for signs of inexperience or trouble. Schooley says the operation has emergency medical technicians and paramedics on site and a safety boat.

Dutch Springs prohibits solo diving except for those with a solo diving certification card. Those divers must provide additional paperwork and use a dive locater, a sort of tracking device. Solo divers must also file a dive plan.

“We have to be assured that if they’re not with an instructor that they know what they’re doing,” Schooley said during an interview this month.

He declined to discuss specific accidents or deaths at his property. He acknowledged that “people can cheat” when they come to his business.

Some have managed to break the rules and enter the property without showing a certification card.

“If we find that, we kick them out,” he said, adding it’s difficult to police hundreds of people who visit on weekends. “When people don’t know what they’re doing, we know what that looks like” and the staff will confront that person.

Even if those divers have certification cards, Dutch Springs can’t verify the precise training that a customer has had.

The World Recreational Scuba Training Council says divers must be at least 15 years old, complete a physical conditioning and swimming evaluation, complete a medical history form, sign a form acknowledging the risks of diving, pass a written or verbal test and demonstrate skills to an instructor.

Lapenta said diving areas rely on the honor system.

The certification card shows you took a course,” said Lapenta, who began training people in open-water diving in 2008. “It is also a liability release for these people. But they have no idea what level of skill, knowledge and education the person has.”

Lapenta said his training typically lasts six to eight weeks, with a required 16 hours of classroom work and 16 hours in a pool. Some training agencies, he said, are offering certification courses that last a weekend.

“Scuba is not an inherently safe activity,” Lapenta said. “It is marketed as such by many entities in order to not scare off potential customers. New divers are led to believe that a guide, dive master or instructor will keep them safe. The training they receive has been dumbed down over the years in order to maximize profits.”

Chris Richardson, a diving instructor trainer from Georgia who sits on the board of directors of the National Association of Underwater Instructors, said that in some respects the industry has become less disciplined in its training.

“In the old days, we spent a whole lot more time on skills to develop muscle memory and spent more time in a pool or pool-like condition (before open-water diving),” Richardson said. “We’ve taken advantage of advances and delivery of education and we’ve also taken advantage of better quality equipment.

“The problem with some of these classes is, at the end of it, the diver having been taught without repetition and without muscle memory isn’t comfortable. They’ve demonstrated skills, but they’re not comfortable. I’d say most of the time you get in trouble on a dive because of not having the experience and comfort in the water that they should have.”

People want adventure

Schooley said Dutch Springs is a safe place for those who follow the rules.

“It’s a close-knit community,” he said. “You hate to hear (about deaths). You hate it for their families. You hate it for the industry.

“Humans want some adventure and try different things,” he added. “There are risks in everything you do.”

Dr. Petar Denoble, senior research director for the Divers Alert Network, said two members of his organization were at Dutch Springs when the most recent death occurred.

“They witnessed a fantastic response,” he said, “a very timely response. I think they are really well organized.”

Most of the deaths at Dutch Springs over the years have been attributed to accidental drowning, with several related to embolisms.

Lehigh County Coroner Scott Grim, whose office has investigated at least three of the deaths over the years, said that in cases he’s investigated there was “no indication of wrongdoing on anyone’s part.”

Grim, who has been on dives at Dutch Springs, called it a very safe environment.

“I look at it this way,” Grim said, “they supply a product, a service. Just like a ski slope, they provide the slope, the snow. I ski down and have fun. If I hit a tree, that’s my fault.”

Northampton County Coroner Zachary Lysek said that during the death investigations his office has done at Dutch Springs, Schooley and his staff have been cooperative.

“I have found that they adequately warned the divers (about the dangers) and had adequate safety measures,” Lysek said.

“It’s a high-risk recreational activity,” he added. “You make one mistake, it’s not forgiving.”

Schooley declined to discuss any legal action Dutch Springs has faced in the past, but there are no known lawsuits filed in Northampton or Lehigh counties in connection to deaths or injuries at the diving operation.

Recreational Concepts Development – Schooley is the corporation’s president – and Dutch Springs have been sued multiple times over injuries suffered at the property’s water park, which is separate from the diving operation, according to a review of court records.

After Christine Mazurek, 22, of Philadelphia became one of the first to die during a diving accident at Dutch Springs in 1986, her mother, Diana Mazurek, said she hired an attorney to investigate the accident with the intention of filing a lawsuit.

A lawsuit was apparently never filed. Diana Mazurek did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Following the diving-related death of Eugene Pietroluongo, 44, of Orange, N.J., at Dutch Springs in 2001, his ex-wife filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Essex, N.J., against the diving school and trainer who gave Pietroluongo advanced diving training. A suit was not filed against Dutch Springs.

In a ruling that followed, a New Jersey appeals court said release waivers signed by people who participate in high-risk activities do not bar relatives from filing wrongful death lawsuits.

A three-judge appellate panel said the waiver was “unenforceable.” While Pietroluongo had the power to sign away his right to sue, the panel ruled, he could not do the same for his survivors. The waiver, like any contract, “can only bind the individuals who signed it.”

After that appeals court ruling, a settlement was apparently reached in the case, court records show. The attorney who filed the suit did not return a message seeking information on the outcome of the case.

Fishman, the sister of Eugene Fleysher, who died in 2013, said she sought advice from an attorney after her brother died and was told she didn’t have a case.

“I sent him the autopsy report and he said we didn’t have a case to stand on,” Fishman said. “He said they blamed him for not properly maintaining his equipment.”

Fishman said she was never contacted by Dutch Springs.

Richardson said no matter how much training a person gets, how well they maintain equipment and how many times they’ve plunged into the water with scuba gear, risks will always exist.

“It is fun, it can be easy and as safe as possible given the environment. However, you need the right training and attitude,” he said. “No matter how much we market diving as safe and fun and easy, deep inside every person’s brain where fear resides, the majority of people know that you can die while diving.”

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