Diving instructor cleared in ‘safety-stop’ death case 

Instructor
Stoney Cove (Mat Fascione)

Prosecution case was misleading, says defence – and experts believe internal drowning could explain the hypertensive student’s death

PADI Master Instructor Nigel Craig has been acquitted of gross negligent manslaughter, following the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) not to seek a retrial. 

Craig, 55, from Northampton, had denied the charge relating to the death by drowning leading to cardiac arrest of his student Richard Stansfield, during a Deep Diver speciality course at the Stoney Cove inland site in the summer of 2016. 

After a jury at Leicester Crown Court had failed to reach a majority verdict on 30 March, the CPS told High Court Judge Mr Justice Pepperall of its decision, and that it would be producing no new evidence. Agreeing that this was the correct decision, the judge recorded a not guilty verdict.

The trial had begun in early March, and the case for the prosecution was reported on Divernet on 31 March, after the jury had failed to reach a majority verdict and been dismissed. That and other media accounts were based only on reports of the prosecution’s opening of the case to the jury. 

Many of the assertions on behalf of the CPS were not subsequently supported by the witnesses it called, maintains Craig’s legal defence team, which says that the prosecution’s account of what occurred on the day, and the extent of culpability of the instructor for the death of his student, had been misleading. 

Instructor
Leicester Crown Court

Deep Diver course

The main focus of the trial was a 3min safety stop taken by the divers at a depth of 5m and whether, following issues encountered earlier in the dive, they should have ascended directly to the surface.

The court heard that Nigel Craig, a builder, had been interested in diving since he was a boy, but that it was only when he had his own young family that he embarked on PADI training courses, initially abroad and later pursuing his passion for the sport mainly at Stoney Cove.

He told the jury that he would attend weekly pool sessions and spend Saturdays at the Dive Northampton shop and Sundays diving. Over time he had progressed through the training until he qualified as a PADI Master Instructor in 2013. 

By the time of the fatal incident, Craig had certified 300 students and assisted in the certification of countless others, he said. He had frequently taught the Deep Diver course at the same location in Stoney Cove.

The day before the dive, he had been through some checks at the Dive Northampton shop with Stansfield, who was 40 and a recently qualified PADI Advanced Open Water Diver who had completed 30 dives. Craig, who had not taught him before, asked Divemaster Karol Tokarczyk to accompany them as safety diver, as he had on previous occasions.

Dive briefing

On Sunday, 24 July, 2016, Craig had collected the Dive Northampton van and driven to Stoney Cove. The three divers met at the van, where Craig went through the course knowledge reviews with Stansfield and conducted a full dive briefing before they kitted up. 

Craig and Tokarczyk were using twin-sets and showed these to Stansfield, pointing out the differences from a single-cylinder set-up. The full PADI buddy-check was carried out.

From the Bus Stop entry point the divers carried out a buoyancy check in the water before swimming on their backs at the surface to the Hydrobox marker buoy. After readying themselves, they had descended on the shotline.

Stansfield had some trouble clearing his ears, so the descent had taken longer than normal. Craig instructed the others to kneel on the Hydrobox, which lies at around 35m and where an air check was conducted. Stansfield reported that he had 150 bar remaining – only after the dive was it known that the true reading at that point had been 130 bar.

The required skill was a simple compass swim of 10-20 fin kicks out, and then back. Craig determined that there was sufficient gas to do this and then to ascend, and diving experts conceded at the trial that this was reasonable based on what he had been told.

On the compass swim Stansfield’s depth quickly began to drop, so Craig instructed him to return to the Hydrobox and start again. This time Stansfield’s buoyancy was better and he completed the exercise.

Down to 60 bar

Another air check showed that the student’s air was down to 60 bar. Craig instructed Tokarczyk to keep his torch on Stansfield’s gauge and monitor his air as they started the ascent on the shotline.

At one point Stansfield’s low-on-air computer alarm went off. This was signalled to Craig, who decided that Stansfield and Tokarczyk should share air. The latter donated his own regulator to Stansfield and switched to his spare. He and Craig both recalled that this was done with no issue arising.

A short time later, Stansfield indicated that he was out of air. Craig and Tokarczyk were puzzled by this because he was breathing off the same supply as Tokarczyk, who had no issues. Craig purged Stansfield’s regulator in case it was malfunctioning, and as a precaution gave the student his own regulator. 

The swap was again carried out smoothly and Craig went onto his spare. In evidence, Tokarczyk described reverting to his own original regulator to check it, and found it to be working.

Craig felt that the only thing to do was to continue to ascend. He told the court that he believed he had a student who had shown some signs of panic but had been successfully calmed and reassured. He was also clearly breathing from Craig’s own ample air supply. 

Craig had no reason to suspect that Stansfield had any form of internal medical issue, particularly as he had reported a clean bill of health and no recreational drug use.

Usual safety stop

In accordance with his many years of PADI training, Craig decided that conducting the usual safety stop would be appropriate following what was deemed to be a deep dive. It was a requirement of the speciality course, and there seemed no reason to dispense with it.

Stansfield had initially gone to continue to the surface but Craig took hold of him and reminded him about the need for the stop. He denied holding him down, as the prosecution had suggested. The computer data appeared to show that the three divers had remained close together at roughly 5m.

What happened next was closely analysed at the trial. Both Craig and Tokarczyk recalled Stansfield’s eyes becoming wide and the regulator slipping from his mouth. It was put back in and purged, and both recalled that once this had happened they made for the surface, because an emergency ascent was clearly now required. 

At the surface Craig inflated the student’s BC and commenced rescue breaths. A rescue-boat crew responded to a shout for help. Stansfield was taken ashore and treated both at the scene and later at Glenfield Hospital, but around six hours after the dive was pronounced dead.

Craig and Tokarczyk were questioned by police and Craig was later charged with manslaughter. Tokarczyk did not face charges.

Internal drowning

Medical experts for both the prosecution and defence conceded that the attempts to save Stansfield had made it more difficult to determine what had led to his death. IPO expert Dr Peter Wilmshurst and HSE diving inspector Mark Renouf were both of the view that the case had all the hallmarks of an instance of IPO (immersion pulmonary oedema, or internal drowning). 

Dr Wilmshurst explained to the jury that people suffering from hypertension were at much higher risk of experiencing IPO. Stansfield had suffered from hypertension but failed to disclose this on the self-certification medical questionnaire he had completed with Dive Northampton. The post mortem examination also revealed that he had cocaine in his system. 

The levels of the drug would have been greater at the time of diving, but it was not known precisely what effect this might have had on Stansfield at pressure and when taking into account his hypertension, but they could have played a part.

At the time of the incident nearly six years ago IPO was not a condition widely known about in recreational diving. There was no guidance on behaviour in a scenario in which a diver was indicating that he was out of air even though he was known to have a good supply from fully functioning equipment. 

People experiencing IPO while diving have a very poor chance of survival, and cardiac arrest can occur rapidly. 

The condition affects surface swimmers including snorkellers as well as divers and can be brought on by cold, over-hydration, stress or pre-existing cardiac disease and high blood pressure (hypertension). In scuba divers it can be exacerbated on ascent by the reduction of partial pressure of oxygen in the lungs and arterial blood.

The resulting waterlogged lungs can be indistinguishable in a post mortem from those produced by external drowning.

Articles about IPO on Divernet include Hydration Is Vital, Sure, But Here’s Why Overdoing It Is Risky and The Hawaiian Snorkelling Deaths Mystery.

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7 Responses

  1. An absolutely correct decision in this case and the balance offered to the Instructor in this article is much appreciated. Whilst it is clear there is much to be learned from this case, trying to criminalise the individual was not the solution.

    1. I completely agree with you. It is unfortunate that we lost a diver due to a diving accident. This article was well written and explained all of the steps that the instructor took with his student. I am glad that the instructor was not found guilty.

  2. A correct a proper verdict in my opinion.

    Had the diver been honest with his medical questionnaire he might still be alive today. He lied about an existing medical condition putting himself and the other divers in harms way. It is regrettable that he lost his life but I feel his actions (in particular taking drugs) directly contributed to his death. I feel sorry for the dive instructor who lost a student through no fault of his own and then got hauled through the courts.

    What is of note and should be added to dive instructor training are these symptoms and actions on a diver reporting OOA with proven working equipment.

  3. Yes I totally agree , the right verdict has been reached. Factors of cocaine and High blood pressure which was not admitted by the diver in the liabilty forms , show how important it is that divers fill in the forms with the correct information , so as risk assessment and Doctor permission can be followed up.

  4. This case appears to have taken over 5 years to come to court, unless I’ve got confused or misread dates. That is a long time for the instructor to wait with such a severe penalty hanging over him.

  5. What is surprising about the case is that the jury failed to reach a majority not guilty verdict. The instructor was entirely blameless once the whole story came out. He had a student who had lied on his health declaration on two counts, the student would’nt have been permitted to dive that day by the Dive Northamption team had he declared these issues.

    A safety stop after a 30m dive is recommended by PADI on their RDP and the instructor, thinking his student was okay, was complying with this recommendation to minimise the risk of a DCI event to the divers.

    My sympathy tis with the instructor who has had this serious criminal prosecution hanging over his head for six years – awful.

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