Fire and Water

John Hernandez picked up his friend at Miami International Airport the night of July 12. The next day, Saturday, the two men rented four scuba tanks at the Cutler Ridge Diving Center on South Dixie Highway, according to police. They borrowed two more from a fellow police officer who kept Hernandez's boat in his back yard. With the boat in tow, Hernandez dropped off Fairfax at a Holiday Inn in South Dade, then drove back to his in-laws' house. Hernandez would say later that he and Maria turned in sometime after midnight, and fell asleep between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. Sunday.

Hernandez and Fairfax have both declined to discuss the events of July 14, but notes from detectives' interviews with the men describe the day's activities. After the Hernandezes picked up Fairfax at the motel, the threesome ate breakfast at a diner, and then stopped at T & S Dive Center on Old Cutler Road. Fairfax and John Hernandez had both forgotten their scuba regulators, and decided to rent a unit each. They got back in John's pickup truck and drove to Black Point Marina near where SW 148th Street ends on the edge of Biscayne Bay. Fairfax helped John put the boat in the water and buy fuel for the 140 horsepower Evinrude outboard. Maria walked to a nearby shop to stock up on sodas and chips.

Within minutes after 10:00 a.m., the party was powering across Biscayne Bay and out into the Atlantic, southward along the eastern shore of Elliott Key. They passed the channel markers at Caesar Creek on the starboard side, and dropped anchor near a reef two miles south of the key, where they hoped to find lobsters.

The three donned their scuba gear, applied Dacor defogging solution to their masks, and entered the water. John later told detectives that Maria complained of eye irritation and chose to get back in the boat while the two men dove for approximately half an hour. Sometime in the early afternoon, deciding the particular section of reef was not to their liking, the party headed north to a different location.

At approximately 5:00 p.m. two paramedics from the Dade County Fire Department prepared to enter the water from a chopper hovering over an open boat with an orange-and-white dive flag flying from its stern. The situation did not look hopeful. Below them, where the pilot of the boat had cut his engine, the paramedics saw a woman in a one-piece purple-and-black bathing suit, lying on her left side. A white T-shirt covering the her chest was emblazoned with a friendly "G'Day!" but the woman was motionless behind the forward console. A burly black man and a smaller white man stood on a deck littered with dive tanks and gear.

Once on board, the paramedics told the men in the boat that the woman was dead. They instructed them to continue on to Homestead Bayfront Park.

By 7:00 p.m. officials from the medical examiner's office and Metro's homicide division had arrived on the dock at the marina. An hour later, shortly before the body was taken away in a coroner's van, Dr. Valerie Rao and Det. Douglas Stephens filed the first official description of what had happened to Maria Hernandez: "The victim was snorkeling with her husband and a friend. She experienced problems with her mask, and one diver went to her assistance. A scuba tank mouthpiece was exchanged, and the deceased disappeared. She was subsequently found, and first aid attempted. Expired on the scene."

When John arrived back at the Demoses' at about 9:00 that night, Philemon Payaitis, the family priest who watched Maria grow up, was already there, having come to comfort the family. "The boy was confused," Payaitis recalls. "He was not talking too much, he was silent."

Weeks later, after further interviews with Fairfax and John Hernandez, a more detailed picture of the fatality emerged. Notes by homicide detectives contained in the medical examiner's case file offer this story: According to the two men, Maria Hernandez again complained of eye irritation when the party arrived at their second dive site, a mile north of the first one. Maria and John decided to go snorkeling while Fairfax dove alone on the reef in eighteen to twenty feet of water. The couple swam on the surface of the ocean, John several yards in front of Maria.

Twenty minutes into his dive, Fairfax says he looked up and saw Maria flailing her arms in a panic ten to fifteen yards away from him, just beneath the surface. Swimming toward her, he noticed her face mask and snorkel lying on the ocean floor. Approaching the struggling woman, Fairfax tried to give her his secondary respirator, but could not remove the apparatus from its pocket.

Maria Hernandez continued to struggle underwater. In desperation Fairfax stuck his own respirator in her mouth. But then he began to panic when the drowning woman refused to return his only source of oxygen. Fairfax says he tore the stem of the respirator from Maria's mouth, leaving a rubber mouthpiece attachment clenched between her teeth. He kicked away from her to the surface just above him, attempting to breathe through the stem of the respirator.

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