Thursday, November 4, 2010

Great shallow water blackout story

A personal account from Steve below.  Be safe everyone.

I want to start this email off by giving God all the glory right now, the fact that I’m even around right now is nothing short of a miracle. Without Cameron Kirkconnell’s quick thinking and actions, I’m sure I’d be laying in 180ft of water off the west coast of Florida. This is my account of the incident, and much of it will overlap with Cam’s which I will include at the end of this email for those who have not read it. This all occurred while freediving, there were no tanks involved whatsoever. I was wearing board shorts and a rashguard, no wetsuit and no weightbelt, water temp was around 85*F.

We had planned this to be the last dive of the day, 70 miles offshore of Englewood, FL, in 180 ft. of water and it was approaching 6:00pm. On a previous dive, we had spotted a cubera snapper in the 100lb class, between 75 and 100 ft, and discussed our tactics on the surface prior to the drop. We’d always joked around about rigging a fishing rod directly to the shooting line on the gun to reel the fish in, and for one time out of the thousands of combined shots that we had taken, Cameron decided to give it a try. After a thorough 5-7 minute surface breathe up, I dropped down to somewhere between 75 and 100 ft (I was not wearing a freediving computer) to look for the fish. After about a minute of searching, I decided to head for the surface as I could not find the fish. Cameron observed much of my ascent and dropped down to look around for the cubera with his “fishing reel Hawaiian-breakaway setup.” I remember swimming upwards and seeing ripples on the surface appx. 25 ft away in the crystal clear water, and instantaneously, bam, I was out cold, shallow water black out. As Cameron lined up the shot on the cubera, the white handle of my speargun sinking past him caught the corner of his eye, moments before he pulled the trigger. At this time, he looked up to see me sinking head first, unconscious and convulsing, about 60 ft away from him laterally in the water.
He immediately dropped his weight belt and swam full speed at me with hopes to get a shot off at the meat of my thigh for a good holding shot, but could not be confident that such a shot would hold at a distance. His second thought was to shoot my calf, but the bones of my lower leg blocked the shot as I was facing him. For a split second, my fiberglass longblade fins turned broadside towards him and he squeezed the trigger, wham, a perfect penetrating shot to the center of my fin. Cam has said that, at this point, it was the closest he had ever been to blacking out himself. However, he made it to the surface and proceeded to instruct everyone on the boat to cut the achor line and reel in his shaft, because I was on the other end and had drowned.
When I reached the boat, I had been under water for appx. 3 and a half to 4 minutes at depth; my body was limp and completely blue, I was also bleeding out of my eyes, ears, nose and mouth. I had a faint pulse but was unconscious and not breathing, and my airway was not opened. This is what is known as a “dry drowning” because the glottis in the back of my throat had closed, not allowing air or water to enter or exit. Cam tilted my chin back and head to the side, blowing air across my cheeks and under my eyes to stimulate breathing as you would an infant.

At this point, still unconscious, some foamy, blood-like fluid (called “sputum,” the result of a pulmonary edema) leaked from the side of my mouth. After a short time I sputtered a small cough and took what Cam described as a 1% lung capacity breath. Another 30 seconds later, I did this again with more sputum foaming from my mouth, and after 10 minutes or so of this repetitive action, I had about 15% lung capacity. This entire time, Cameron and the others on the boat were on the radio with the Coast Guard to get oxygen out to us ASAP. I can’t say that I was aware for much of the time prior to this, but I remember hearing Cam’s voice assuring me that everything would be okay as I drifted in and out of awareness in my own mind. Another 5 minutes later, after a total of 15-20 minutes of unresponsiveness, I finally slurred out some words and could lightly squeeze his hand. From this point on, as the boat was speeding towards shore, I slowly regained motor functions and lung capacity (up to about 30%), until the Coast Guard helicopter arrived, 45 minutes after the original accident, still 55 miles offshore. They lifted me in a basket into the copter, and I was at Tampa General Hospital within 30 minutes.
I still had very little lung capacity as they were filled with the sputum from the pulmonary edema, I was throwing up blood that was in my stomach, and my entire body ached. Luckily I dodged two other bullets which were of concern: the blood from my ears and eyes. The blood from my ears was caused by the fact that I had not equalized as I sunk from appx. 25ft to 80ft, but somehow I did not burst my ear drums and my hearing was not affected. The blood from my eyes was a result of the massive mask squeeze on my face caused by the fact that I had also not blown air into my mask to compensate for compression as I was sinking, but once again I escaped without injury. I spent a total of one day in the Trauma Center, two days in the Intensive Care Unit, and one day on the hospital floor, with the majority of the time spent concentrating on reducing the amount of fluid in my lungs. There was absolutely no long term damage to my body or brain, and my lung capacity is back to nearly 100% after only days.

I can not stress enough how amazingly fortunate I was. I am not aware of anyone else surviving a shallow water blackout after being retrieved from such depth without major physical and mental damage. Every little thing worked out perfectly, and if anything was different, I can say with 100% confidence that I would not be here. If I had watched the whole thing from a third person standpoint, I would also say that there is no way I should have survived. Why we decided to rig the gun to the fishing reel on the boat for this one shot out of the thousands we had taken in our lives, I don’t know. How my gun sank right next to Cam, I don’t know. How he saw the gun before pulling the trigger on the fish and thus not having a shot left for me, I don’t know. Why the shaft penetrated my fin perfectly without cracking it or breaking, I don’t know. Why my fin didn’t slip off while I was being reeled in resulting in me sinking, I don’t know. Why my ear drums didn’t burst and my eyes sucked out of my head, I don’t know. All I do know is that I’m here, and God is great. Cameron’s multiple freedive spearfishing world records speak for themselves as far as his diving ability is concerned, but I’m sure he would agree that this was the best shot of his life. There is nobody else on the planet that I would trust more to take a long range shot directly at me to save my life in 200ft of water.
The scariest part is that this could happen to anybody at anytime, and those with more experience are even more susceptible to shallow water blackout. If this email and my story saves one person then everything that has happened was more than worth it. To everyone, dive safe, always dive with a buddy, and don’t push your limits because NO FISH IS WORTH YOUR LIFE!

Steve Bennett

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