Co-workers’ quick actions save life of diver without air

The best birthday present ever

jdodge@theolympian.comDecember 19, 2013 

On the day he turned 23, Seattle Shellfish geoduck diver Joe Zamudio received a birthday gift from three co-workers: the gift of life.

It was his first dive of the day Dec. 5 in Spencer Cove off Harstine Island when Zamudio, working in the chilly waters of Case Inlet about 20 feet deep, noticed his mask started sticking to his face about 30 minutes into the dive. It was a sign something was wrong with his air supply.

He pushed the purge button on his mask to bypass his air regulator and get air flowing freely again. But nothing happened.

He tried to ditch his 60-pound waist belt so he could reach the surface and uttered an expletive, which were the last words heard by fellow diver Andrew Chrisman, some 40 feet away, and dive tender Del Bell, stationed on the diving platform above the two divers. Then Zamudio blacked out and quit breathing.

Chrisman started moon walking over to his stricken co-worker. “I reached him in a minute or two, but it felt like forever,” Chrisman said. “His mask was off his face and he was kind of floating on his side.”

Chrisman pushed a button on Zamudio’s dive suit to inflate it with air to make the stricken diver more buoyant. Then he started pushing him to the surface.

Meanwhile on the platform, Ball was hauling Zamudio’s air line in and Jason Fitzpatrick, preparing to dive from another platform about 80 feet away, dove in to help Chrisman with the water rescue.

Chrisman, Fitzpatrick and Ball struggled to push and pull the 215-pound Zamudio and his 30 pounds of gear onto the platform. Precious seconds were ticking away. “After about seven minutes, a brain without oxygen starts to have brain damage,” said Paul Harris, operations manager for Seattle Shellfish and a former volunteer firefighter.

Trained in CPR, Ball tried a couple of chest compressions but Zamudio’s lungs were filled with water. He started to cut the diver’s suit off to reduce pressure on his chest, rolled him over and proceeded with a couple back compressions. “That’s when he started breathing,” Ball recalls. Between four and five minutes had passed since the near-drowning had begun.

But Zamudio was still unconscious and not out of the woods yet. A 911 call by co-workers who saw the accident unfolding brought a crew from Mason County Fire District No. 5 to the remote scene within about 15 minutes. They supplied Zamudio with oxygen and kept working on him as they transported him to their Spencer Lake fire station. From there a medical helicopter responding to the call airlifted him the roughly 35 miles to Harborview Medical Hospital in Seattle.

When the accident occurred, Seattle Shellfish suspended diving operations for the day. Many of the company’s 70 employees — including 16 divers — gathered at the Shelton shop for a debriefing, and to await word on Zamudio’s condition.

“We were all very stunned,” Harris recalls. “We’d never had anything like this happen before.”

Fortunately, the drama has a happy ending. Surrounded in the hospital room by family and friends, Zamudio, who had been sedated, awoke about 7 p.m. on his birthday — just in time to feel the sharp pain of a catheter being removed. He was released from the hospital about 1 p.m. the next day.

“I felt like I’d had the crap kicked out of me,” the former North Mason High School athlete said.

He’s anxious to get back in the water, but must first pass a physical designed especially for divers that is scheduled for Thursday, Harris said.

Meanwhile, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated the accident. In the process, the agency determined that aquaculture is exempt from OSHA diving regulations, Harris said. OSHA did recommend that Seattle Shellfish add another dive tender to each team.

Harris said that’s not a high priority for the company. But company officials do plan some changes, including adding air pressure gauges to diving equipment, and using a harness system to pull disabled divers out of the water, rather than trying to bring them up via the platform ladder.

Harris said the cause of the accident is probably related to the weather. It was 20 degrees that day, perhaps cold enough to cause ice blockage somewhere in Zamudio’s air supply system, which includes a 300-foot-long hose.

“We may add hot water shrouds to the air lines to keep things de-iced — that’s an option,” he said. “And there’s going to be days when we don’t dive due to cold weather — it’s just not worth it.”

As with Zamudio, who started diving last August, the divers who came to Zamudio’s rescue are certified divers. Fitzpatrick and Ball are trained in deep sea diving and have worked on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

“It’s a dangerous job — there’s never a safe moment,” Fitzpatrick said.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444

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