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Line-laying might have avoided Scylla deaths

Line laying on Scylla - Whitsand Bay (Nilfanion)
Whitsand Bay (Nilfanion)
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Complacency might have played a part in the deaths of two divers in a single incident on the Plymouth shipwreck HMS Scylla last year, an inquest has heard. The men died after becoming trapped in the engine-room in zero visibility and running out of air. 

“Had the divers used a line to get into the wreck they would have been in a better position,” commented Plymouth senior coroner Ian Arrow, who had presided over an inquest into a similar double-death incident on Scylla 15 years earlier. He is now calling for a national safety protocol on wreck-penetration.

The inquest into the 2021 incident was held at Plymouth Coroner’s Court in Derriford yesterday (7 November), with the proceedings reported by the Plymouth Herald. An initial account of the incident appeared on Divernet last year.  

The fatalities were theatre-lighting technician and master scuba diver trainer Andrew Harman, 40, from Plymouth, and computer-analyst and rescue diver Mark Gallant, 49, from Saltash, both described as highly experienced scuba divers. They had been diving in a group of three with Adam Dent, who only narrowly managed to save his own life.

They were part of a group of seven divers who left Sutton Harbour on the Aquanauts dive-boat Outcast on the early evening of 3 September. The Scylla, a 113m former RN frigate, was deliberately sunk at a depth of 23m in Whitsand Bay as an artificial reef in 2004.

Harman, Gallant and Dent were using twin-sets and planned to penetrate the four-deck wreck while the other, less-experienced, divers explored the exterior.

Disoriented by silt

Dent had followed the other two divers into deck three, which he described as the most dangerous because of the build-up of easily disturbed silt there. He said that although they had not laid a line he had assumed that Harman, leading the dive, had known where he was going.

After about 20 minutes Dent had become disoriented by the silt in a dead-end corridor and had lost sight of the other two divers. He had spent the next half-hour trying to exit the wreck while thinking he might not make it out. At one point he had “bumped into” Harman and Gallant before losing them again.

Dent’s air was on the verge of running out when he managed to squeeze through a small exit by removing his cylinders, ripping his wetsuit in the process. He made a 10-second emergency ascent.

Outcast skipper Alex Lucas stated that he had been unaware of any problems until he saw Dent surface “waving frantically”. He had notified the Coastguard and one of the divers, Dan Baxter, had swum down to the wreck following the trapped divers’ bubbles but had been too inexperienced to risk venturing inside.

The inquest heard that those on the boat could only watch as the fatalities’ bubble-streams petered out. A major search operation ensued, involving the Coastguard, RNLI and police. Dent was taken to DDRC Healthcare in Plymouth to be treated for possible decompression illness and later discharged.

Accidental death

The Scylla was closed to recreational divers but it was 12 days before commercial divers were able to recover Harman’s body, in challenging conditions. Gallant was not found until 12 October, the day after Arrow had opened the initial inquest into Harman’s death. Gallant’s inquest had opened two weeks later.

The divers had been identified from their dental records, and Home Office pathologist Dr Deborah Cook said that the balance of probabilities indicated that they had drowned after running out of air. 

Det-Con Andrew Trott-Rodgers of Devon & Cornwall Police referred to “an element of complacency” in the divers‘’’ failure to lay a line, while PC Julian Fry reported that work was underway on a national wreck-entry protocol that would assist future divers.

Recording a verdict of accidental death, the coroner said that he planned to write to the government about the necessity of devising such a protocol.

In 2014 the National Marine Aquarium, which manages the Scylla site, advised divers not to enter the wreck because of the concentration of silt inside it, much of it attributed to dredging in Whitsand Bay.

In August 2007, experienced divers Kaye Moss and David White had died after failing to lay a line and becoming trapped in a confined silt-filled compartment on the Scylla. Presiding over their inquest, Ian Arrow had said at the time: “I hope this case leads other divers to reflect on the hazards and the precautions needed if they enter a confined hull space, particularly if it contains silt.”

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