Rapture of the Deep

A voyage into the murky underworld off Key Largo turns deadly

He decided to return to the surface and tell the boat captain that his friends were in trouble. Spialter shot up much faster than was prudent — without decompressing. He yelled that his three buddies were lost inside the ship, then descended into the water again to decompress.

It was just after 10:00 a.m. Soon other divers on boats and back at the Key Largo docks heard the urgent call on their marine radios: three missing divers aboard the Spiegel Grove.

At 10:15 the Coast Guard, the Monroe County Sheriff's Office, and the Key Largo Fire Department all readied their boats. Five minutes later two divers from another boat surfaced with an unconscious man. It turned out to be Kevin Coughlin. The Coast Guard rushed him to shore, where an ambulance awaited. Coughlin was dead by the time he reached the doors of Mariner's Hospital, but doctors didn't make the official pronouncement until 11:50 a.m.

In May 2002 the Spiegel Grove was intentionally sunk to attract marine life and divers
AP World Wide
In May 2002 the Spiegel Grove was intentionally sunk to attract marine life and divers
Richie Kohler, a wreck diver from New Jersey, hosts the History Channel show Deep Sea Detectives
Richie kohler
Richie Kohler, a wreck diver from New Jersey, hosts the History Channel show Deep Sea Detectives

Rob Bleser — the fire department captain and Spiegel Grove project manager — was one of the many who heard the emergency call. He rallied two of his wreck-certified dive team members. At around noon, he piloted the fire department's rescue boat out to the wreck. The volunteer divers returned with bad news: Scott Stanley and Jonathan Walsweer were dead. The pair was 134 feet down, inside the ship's pump room, with the air regulators out of their mouths and their tanks empty.

Even after hearing Spialter's emotional retelling of the dive, no one could figure out what had happened.

The bodies were recovered the next day. The medical examiner termed the official cause of death as drowning.

Sheriff's department Captain Mark Coleman says the men did several things wrong: They didn't file a dive plan with their dive charter captain, they didn't use their own safety line, and they went into a part of the ship that was off limits.

But wreck divers are known for breaking the rules; Coleman admitted that prior to that fateful day in March, some divers — not Stanley's group — had cut the chains and pried open hatches to penetrate the wreck. It wasn't the job of the sheriff's office, or the Coast Guard, or anyone, really, to check on the wreck every day. And after all, divers including Spialter, Scott Stanley, Walsweer, and Coughlin sign waivers agreeing not to penetrate too deep into wrecks. "These men were well beyond where any sport diver should go," says Coleman. "They made a lot of mistakes."

Spialter didn't speak with any media after the tragedy. Someone who answered his telephone in New Jersey said that he "would never be able to talk" about the tragedy.

However three days after his friends died, someone claiming to be him posted some comments online in a news forum, topix.com, about the accident.

"I ask that everyone respect the memories of my dear friends and not speculate as to what happened. Planes crash, cars crash, skydivers occasionally are not successful, and the dive community is not immune to accidents. Please be respectful and accept that accidents happen. I continue to live with this tragedy. Please do not compound it," he wrote.

Spialter — or someone posing as him — also responded on topix.com to the criticisms posted on several other online dive boards, including scubaboard.com and decostop.com. On sites read by tens of thousands of people, divers had attacked the four friends for being careless.

A man named Jim H., from Dayton, Ohio, said that "what went wrong was their ego," and called them "stupid" for going into the Spiegel Grove without proper equipment or training.

Spialter protested that all four were incredibly advanced divers. "You have fallen into the trap of speaking without knowing," he wrote to Jim H. "As one certified cave diver to another, don't judge unknowingly. You prove who is lacking. Perhaps you were looking in the mirror when referring to öjust plain stupid.' If you really want to dive, come with me to dive the North Atlantic off NJ on our numerous wrecks. I'll even guide you on the boat on which I crew during the summer (if you have the integrity). YOU DO A DISSERVICE TO THE DIVE COMMUNITY WITH PIG HEADED UNKNOWING STATEMENTS. May the memories of my buddies be for a blessing for us all."

Richie Kohler refuses to speculate on how his friends died. "I could sit here all day and paint you a thousand horrifying situations that could have happened in that cramped compartment," he says.

Marianne Stanley believes the men had a dive plan, pointing to the placement of emergency tanks and strobe lights as evidence. "Scott was such a cautious diver," she says, adding that she spoke with Spialter in the days after the tragedy. When asked her opinion on how it all unfolded, Marianne refuses to give details and says the truth will remain a mystery. "I really can't say," she explains. "It's too personal. It involves all four divers."

At Scott's funeral hundreds of people told stories about how he had taught them to dive safely, Marianne explains. His last student, she said, was an eleven-year-old boy certified in February.

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