The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF), which embraces all branches of the country’s armed services, has been fined following the death of a Royal New Zealand Navy diver during rebreather training exercises.
The fine amounted to $288,000 (about £147,000), less than a fifth of the maximum that could have been imposed. Health & safety body Worksafe had brought charges against the NZDF of failure to ensure the safety of employees, exposing six sailors to risk of death or serious injury.
Proceedings at Auckland District Court on 16 October and at an earlier court of inquiry were reported by New Zealand’s biggest media website Stuff.
Able Diver Zachary Yarwood, 23, died on 25 March, 2019, after an incident at Devonport Naval Base in Auckland. He was taking part in a night-dive with five other trainee divers at the end of the first day of “Endurance Week” – the fourth of an 18-week course.
The day had started with a four-mile run followed by a shallow 180-minute compass swim on oxygen. The trainees than carried out a deeper nitrox dive, and the fatal dive, a snag-line seabed search in 6m, again meant to be carried out on nitrox, started at the base at 8pm.
The divers were using front-mounted Dräger LAR7000 rebreathers, which combine closed-circuit oxygen and semi-closed-circuit nitrox diving and allow switching between the two modes during a dive.
Yarwood was in one of two groups of three divers. His fellow-trainees were secured about 30m apart on a guideline while he moved between them unsecured, holding the snag-line.
All the divers’ individual SMBs should have been monitored by two attendants, but they were absent. Only a dive supervisor, standby diver and medic were present, and at one point the standby diver had been allowed to go to make tea. Neither he nor the supervisor had all the required qualifications for mixed-gas diving or instruction.
After 88 minutes an SMB entanglement occurred with the other group, and the supervisor directed all divers to surface. He and the standby diver were assisting the first group when they noticed that only one diver from Yarwood’s group had surfaced, and was indicating a problem.
Yarwood had been found unresponsive on the seabed, having possibly been in that state for as much as 15 minutes. He was brought to the surface at about 9.45pm and, being entangled in lines, it had proved difficult to recover him to the safety boat and pontoon.
There was a delay in contacting the emergency services but the standby diver performed CPR until Yarwood could be taken to hospital, where he later died from brain damage brought about by hypoxia.