The dive-plan of two New Zealand divers had been simple: a 50m line-descent on air – but one of them ended up dead at twice that depth, on the gold wreck he had dreamed of diving since childhood, a New Zealand inquest has heard.
Woodrow ‘Woody’ Pattinson, 36, died on 15 March, 2020, while diving at the RMS Niagara wreck-site. The trans-Pacific liner sank off Northland in June 1940 after hitting a German mine, taking with it 590 gold ingots. Most of these were later recovered from the 100m-deep wreck.
Pattinson's buddy Daniel Smyth, whose boat they were using, had been a close friend since childhood and they often dived together, according to a report on the inquest by the NZ Herald.
Pattinson, an environmental scientist from Auckland, had gained his PADI Open Water Diver certificate just over a year before the fatal incident and had gone on to gain five further certifications, although he was not qualified to dive beyond 40m.
Smyth told the inquest that his friend liked to “push the limits a little bit” and had been known to deviate from dive-plans. An instructor said that he had not regarded him as a risk-taker during his training.
Pattinson had attended a family birthday party the night before the dive but was said not to have drunk heavily. He had however planned the dive with Smyth “over a glass of wine” before leaving Marsden Marina at about 1.30pm, and Smyth said that both men had drunk up to three beers on the boat.
Post mortem analysis would later show that Pattinson’s alcohol content had been about twice the drink-driving limit when the pair dived at around 4pm.
‘Halfway to Niagara'
Pattinson had suggested a dive to 50m, so that the pair could say they had gone “halfway to the Niagara“. He had already messaged his girlfriend, also a diver, to say that he might not return that night because he was living out his dream of diving the wreck. Smyth reported that his friend had been talking emotionally about death and reincarnation.
Pattinson was using a rented 12-litre air-tank and, because he had previously travelled for the party, had borrowed a regulator, fins and other equipment from Smyth. He had no dive-computer.
The divers descended on the anchor-line with what were described as “safety stops along the way”. At 50m Pattinson had returned Smyth's signal with an OK sign, but the pair were then distracted and disorientated by a large school of kingfish.
When the fish had gone Smyth saw his buddy below him on the line and followed to avoid being separated, but stopped at 64m, realising that he was getting beyond air-diving limits. By this time Pattinson was already 5-10m deeper than him.
Smyth ascended, and raised the alarm when his buddy failed to resurface. The emergency services responded but in deteriorating conditions police divers were unable to search the wreck-site for the next 10 days. On 25 March an ROV located Pattinson’s body lying on the Niagara wreck, his fins missing.
A pathologist reported the cause of death as drowning, and a police diver said that Pattinson’s equipment had been correctly configured.
Returning a verdict of accidental death, coroner Alexander Ho considered it possible that the diver, inexperienced at diving to such depth, had been initially disorientated by the kingfish and could have been affected by nitrogen narcosis, oxygen toxicity or panic, exacerbated by the alcohol in his system.
The fact that he had neither dumped his weights nor inflated his BC to assist in an ascent suggested that his judgment had been impaired, and his lack of training for technical-diving depths had made it difficult for him to stop or control his descent.
Apart from following a dive-plan within qualification levels, the coroner recommended that divers should refrain from diving within 8-10 hours of drinking alcohol, be ready to ditch weights in an emergency and have a non-diver remain on the boat as surface cover.