WAITING TO INHALE - Officer blacks out 30-feet below

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Aaron Hoff, as told to Tim Barela
  • 726th Air Control Squadron, Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho and Torch Magazine
When we couldn't find them in the murky bay, we made the decision to head for the surface. But as we ascended, it just kept getting darker and darker. I checked my depth gauge. Eighty feet? With sudden terror, we realized we hadn't been going up at all! We were sinking ... fast! We'd gone an extra 65 feet in the wrong direction, and the worst was yet to come. Because Naomi wasn't going to make it to the surface ... at least not breathing.

While going through the air battle manager course at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., last year, I could hardly wait for an upcoming three-day weekend. My brain needed the break, and some of my fellow students and I decided to make the most of it by signing up to take scuba diving lessons.

Panama City, Fla. ... here we come!

First, though, we followed protocol and filled out the Air Education and Training Command Form 410, High-Risk Activity Worksheet, and received a safety brief from our commander. But I don't think any of us really felt we'd be taking that big of a risk. Do 21 and 22 year olds ever think they are taking that great a risk? Heck, we were too excited to take our first dive. The "fear factor" was pretty low in our group.

On our first day, we received academic instruction, followed by some hands-on training in a pool. The instructor taught us basic safety skills, such as mask clearing and respirator replacement.

Then on to the fun stuff!

The second day of training, Oct. 2, we were scheduled to dive in the jetties at St. Andrew's Bay ... no more classroom, no more pool. This was go time.

Little did we know, it was also the beginning of a day about to go suddenly and horribly wrong.

The jetties house three main water systems in the bay. In the center of the jetty is a 100-foot deep manmade trench. These characteristics make for some strong currents; and when there are storms in the preceding days, which there were prior to the dive, the water visibility becomes poor.

We made our first dive over the wall at the jetties' dive area. The water was slightly choppy and visibility less than stellar, but that didn't bother me. My lack of experience didn't allow me to comprehend the level of visibility that would be ideal for a student diver like me. Plus, everyone in the group made it back to shore just fine, so that just boosted my confidence.

We switched out our tanks and eagerly prepared for the second dive.

This dive would take us to a depth of 20 feet. At this depth, we were scheduled to perform the basic safety skills we had learned the day before.

I had no clue of the kind of "pop quiz" that was in store for me.

We split up into pairs. My partner was my classmate and good friend, 2nd Lt. Naomi Hume, an Air National Guardsman from Wichita, Kan.

We entered the water.

At 15 feet we all gave our instructor, who kept checking on us, the thumbs up to continue. But as we started swimming downward again, Naomi accidentally stuck her hand on a sea urchin.

We stopped for only 20 seconds while she pulled the needles out of her hand. Of course, had we been wearing dive gloves, the needles would not have stuck into her hand in the first place.

We soon realized that stopping to tend to her hurting hand had been a bad idea.

The rest of the class had continued on, and we needed to catch up with them. But because of the dull visibility, we could not make out where the group had gone. We did as we were taught and treaded water at that depth hoping to spot anyone.

No luck.

We didn't realize it at the time, but because of our unfamiliarity with the jetties and the strong currents, we had been pulled downward and away from everyone. They were nowhere in sight. We looked at each other, exchanged some hand signals and took only a moment to decide to swim back to the surface.

At this point, we really weren't overly concerned with our situation. We were probably a little embarrassed for losing our group on our first dive; but we hadn't panicked, and the surface was a relatively short 15 feet away.

As Naomi and I attempted to reach daylight, we ensured we followed the rules taught during academics and did not ascend faster than 1 foot per second to avoid getting decompression illness ... "the bends."

Here again, our inexperience came back to haunt us.

While we concentrated on a slow climb, we did not factor in the weight of our gear or the current of the water. As we continued to the surface, something wasn't right. I noticed that the water was getting darker, when it should be getting lighter.

You can imagine my surprise when I checked my depth gauge and it told me that we were at 80 feet. We had gone an extra 65 feet in the wrong direction! I shook Naomi's vest to get her attention, and then showed her the gauge.

Her expression probably mirrored my own ... shock and fear. For the first time we were scared ... really scared. A bit of doubt crept into my mind whether or not we'd actually make it back to the top.

I made us neutrally buoyant by adding air to the scuba vests. Once we were not sinking anymore, I continued to check my gauge and maintain contact with Naomi.

It seemed like forever before the water began to get lighter. But once it did, I breathed a huge sigh of relief and felt like we were out of any immediate danger.

Then at 40 feet, all hell broke loose.

Naomi had not considered that the deeper we got, the harder it would be to breathe because the air in the tanks becomes denser. The more effort she put into breathing, the more she thought her respirator was clogged or possibly malfunctioning.

She started to panic.

As she took the respirator out of her mouth to clear it, she ripped the mouthpiece making it unusable. She made sure to get my attention and pointed at her mouth. I quickly gave her my secondary respirator as practiced the day before.

We continued our ascent, and I started my routine again. Check the gauge, glance toward the surface, then check my partner. Gauge, surface, partner.

At 30 feet, my eyes swung to Naomi, and I saw she had now spit out the emergency respirator. Terror twisted her face as she flailed frantically. She resisted my multiple attempts to give the respirator back to her. Finally, I tried to force it into her mouth, but in a panic she slapped my hand away.

I didn't know what was wrong with her. What was going through her mind? Why wouldn't she use the respirator?

Hastily, I stole a desperate glance toward the surface to see how close we were.

When I looked back at Naomi, she was unconscious.

I was flat out terrified now.

I knew I had to remain calm and get Naomi to the surface as quickly and safely as possible.

A minute later we broke out of the water. Naomi slumped lifelessly.

Thirty feet from shore, I began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and intermittently yelled for help. Naomi suddenly spit up water and gasped for air. As I drug her toward shore, her lips turned blue, and I continued mouth-to-mouth.

Finally, some bystanders helped me pull her onto the rocks and put her on her side. To my amazement, she almost immediately regained consciousness.

We moved Naomi to a bystander's boat and rushed her to the nearest hospital. From there she was airlifted to Tallahassee, where doctors closely monitored her.

When I arrived at the hospital, Naomi was asleep. I was at her bedside when she woke up.

It's funny how something as seemingly simple as seeing a close friend open her eyes takes on a whole new meaning when you were faced with the possibility of that not ever happening again. It's almost as if I was holding my breath until I was sure she was OK.

When she was able to inhale, I was finally able to exhale.

Lieutenant Hoff is now an air battle manager for the 726th Air Control Squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. Lieutenant Hume spent only a couple of days in the hospital and was released in good health. She is currently deployed to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Hoff and Hume remain close friends.