By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
The divers surfaced in four-foot swells, Allen says. The current had become perceptibly stronger. They also discovered that the boat was farther away than he'd thought it would be; in recollection, Allen figures it was between 60 to 100 yards away. Worse still, they had drifted down-current, a diving taboo. Tired, with diminishing air supplies, they faced a long swim against a heavy current in rough water. At that point, Allen says, he switched to his snorkel - a basic procedure when a diver surfaces - and swam at a moderate pace for about a half-minute.
When he stopped to check on Figuerola, he discovered her about twenty feet behind him. "There she was, on the surface, kicking and swimming away with the regulator still in her mouth. She looked good. My first thought was, `What's she doing back there?' I was very surprised she wasn't beside me." But looking at the boat, Allen began to doubt their ability to cover the distance. "My fear was that the two of us were going to look like real asses, and they were going to have to retrieve us," he says. "I also knew I wasn't going to go an inch further until she had caught up."
But as Allen bobbed in the swells, he lost sight of Figuerola. "I thought she was swimming toward me underwater to avoid these swells. It was like a roller coaster. Up and down. Up and down. And I'm waiting for her to arrive. Then all of a sudden, Don [Stelzen] and a diver from the boat are there, and someone says, `Where's your buddy?' I said, `I don't know. She's swimming toward me underwater.'" Stelzen instructed Allen to hand over his equipment and pull himself along a rope to the Lady Cyana III. A minute later he was puking over the side of the dive boat as a smaller dive boat that had been anchored nearby skimmed over the water toward Islamorada with the limp body of Tania Figuerola on board.
Figuerola was pronounced dead at Mariner's Hospital in Tavernier an hour later. A Monroe County investigation into the death, completed in mid-January, revealed that Figuerola had run out of air and sunk to the bottom. Divers from the Lady Cyana III had discovered her lying face-down on the sea bed; an autopsy found her lungs full of water and blood - an indication of drowning. "I'll never forget the last thing Don said before we went in," Allen remarks. "He says, `Well, guys. You're both certified, you don't need me, you're on your own. It's a fun dive. Have a fun dive.'" Allen pauses, letting the irony of the words sink in. "That's the expression he used. It still echoes in my head. It hurts."
Despite the fact that it was declared an accident, Figuerola's death strikes the close-knit professional scuba community in its Achilles tendon. Accident and death are remaining constant as the number of certified divers soars, but many scuba industry experts are increasingly concerned that safety standards need improvement. No one was found criminally negligent in Tania Figuerola's death, yet the accident raises questions about inexperienced divers, equipment quality, the efficacy of certification programs, and a competitiveness that has motivated some instructors, dive-boat operators, and scuba retailers to compromise safety in the interest of profit.
In the Fifties and Sixties, during the heady early days of scuba diving, underwater exploration was only for the strong and the slightly insane. Like mountain climbing, it was a specialized endeavor that dropped man into an unnatural environment and demanded his respect for the greater forces of nature. But improved equipment and greater knowledge of scuba has demystified the sport and opened to the masses perhaps the last great frontier on earth. Now hundreds of thousands of people make millions of dives every year in the U.S. By some estimations, about one-third of those dives take place in South Florida. "It's turned into an industry and a novelty and it's no longer a sport," remarks Miami dive-boat captain Chuck Norwich, who made his first dive in 1952. "It's big time, baby. Big money in it."
Just how big is the money? Bob Holston, president of the National Scuba Retailers Association, estimates that Florida alone boasts a one-billion-dollar-per-year dive-travel industry, generated in part by about 500 dive shops. And most of that business takes place between Miami and Key West. Much of the industry's growth has occurred since the early Seventies, when there were no more than 150 dive shops in the state, says Spencer Slate, chairman of the Florida Association of Dive Operators. (As a further indication of diving's rise in popularity, the number of instructional centers for training instructors in Florida has risen from one in 1974 to about six today, according to Slate.)
All this growth has further decentralized an already amorphous industry that answers only to itself. Governmental involvement in the scuba industry is almost nonexistent, and dive operators want to keep it that way. "The more the government stays out of it, the better it is," declares Doug Austin, manager of Austin's Diving Center in Kendall, echoing the sentiments of most of his colleagues. "The way government is, they screw up half the things they get involved in."