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
Oversight within the scuba industry is provided by an array of regional, state, national, and international organizations that regulate themselves. About a half-dozen leading instructional agencies, under the aegis of the national Recreational Scuba Training Council, dictate the minimum standards of diving instruction and certification in the United States. Each organization polices its own agents around the world to ensure the quality of instruction and instructional equipment. If an instructor is not up to snuff in the eyes of the instructional agency he represents, he may be dropped.
While there's no law preventing anyone from starting his own independent scuba academy, a scuba certification card from that academy would carry about as much currency as Monopoly money. Most scuba retailers or dive-boat operators require a diver to show his certification card before renting or buying equipment, or before going on a charter dive. And rarely do operators recognize anything but the top ten or so U.S. certification programs and the leading overseas programs.
The dive-charter boats must contend with the government only insofar as other boats-for-hire adhere to U.S. Coast Guard regulations. But voluntary charter-boat safety standards as they relate specifically to scuba diving are established by various autonomous dive-operator groups, such as the Florida Association of Dive Operators. Voluntary safety guidelines for retailers are similarly dictated by such groups. As for the tools of the trade, all the major equipment manufacturers belong to the national Diving Equipment Manufacturers Association, which sets quality level and inspection schedules.
With few mandatory rules, the diving industry finds its moral and ethical backbone in the widespread fear of litigation. However, the pickings for personal-injury lawyers are remarkably slim. In 1990, for instance, 91 U.S. citizens died while scuba diving, 22 in Florida, according to the Divers Alert Network, which compiles an annual report on diving accidents and fatalities. The same year, 738 U.S. citizens suffered decompression illness, which results from staying down too long or rising to the surface too quickly. (The illness can cause symptoms such as pain, numbness, weakness, and even paralysis.) About half of those accidents occurred in the Caribbean and the southeastern states, including Florida. "There aren't that many scuba-related lawsuits," says Fort Lauderdale attorney Kevin Malone, one of several plaintiff's lawyers in South Florida who specialize in diving litigation. "At any given time, I might have two to five cases going on. It's about five percent of my practice." Almost all his scuba cases involve diving deaths.
Tom Mount, an underwater cinematographer and a pioneer in the rigorous sport of cave diving, says the low numbers are an indication of the industry's ability to monitor itself. "Most sports that regulate themselves - like mountain climbing - have acceptable accident records," he says, voicing a familiar anti-government theme among divers. "Better than having a bunch of government bureaucrats who don't know what they're talking about telling you what to do."
But there's nothing like a scuba death to rattle the industry's self-confidence. And that's exactly what Tania Figuerola's tragedy did. Even though many in the diving world have concluded that Figuerola was ultimately responsible for her own demise, her death has driven several of those involved to run for cover behind lawyers and has forced the industry to take an even closer look at itself.
According to detective Corey Bryan, who investigated Figuerola's death for the Monroe County Sheriff's Department, the victim drowned after running out of air. "It appeared that she was having trouble," he remarks. "She apparently got really tired, didn't drop any equipment, and never put a snorkel in her mouth." Witnesses on the dive boat reported that Figuerola had signaled for help as she swam toward the boat, a gesture Allen didn't see because he was facing away from her. It remains unclear from the investigation or the various eyewitness reports - including Allen's - how Figuerola ended up on the bottom of the ocean. Allen insists she had inflated her buoyancy compensator vest as they ascended together. To sink beneath the surface, she would have had to release the air in the vest. Allen speculates that she probably did just that, tried to swim under the current, ran out of air, panicked, didn't employ any emergency procedures, and sank to her death.
A postdive equipment check revealed that Figuerola's pressure gauge was reading 200 psi higher than the air tank's actual contents, which may have led her to believe she still had air left when in fact she didn't. But detective Bryan determined that the dive shop had adhered to conventional maintenance schedules and had checked the equipment on a regular basis. (Dive experts say it's not uncommon for gauges to read slightly inaccurately, which is why many instructors and dive-boat operators insist their clients surface with from 500 to 1000 psi.) An autopsy revealed that Figuerola had experienced no trauma, but discovered amphetamines in her stomach. Allen, astonished when told of the amphetamines, insists Figuerola didn't take drugs. Because she was known to be extremely weight-conscious, investigators speculate the amphetamines may have been diet pills.
Regardless of the variety, the amphetamines likely didn't do the distressed woman any good. "I don't know if it had anything to do with her death, but if she's got amphetamines, that affects the cardiovascular system and that's what gave out there," says Joel Dovenbarger, medical coordinator of the Diving Alert Network at Duke University. "She's got breathing problems, she's probably getting panicky, and she's got these amphetamines. It's yet another factor that would influence her decision-making process."