Diver deaths result in changes to Navy Dive Manual, equipment

Norfolk. Va. -Navy divers James Reyher and Ryan Harris both went down together, to a rare scuba diving depth of 150 feet, to finish a training mission needed for a deployment–but they didn’t return to the surface alive.

The dive that killed the two sailors was unprecedented according to the Command Master Diver of EOD Group 2, more than 31,000 dives have been performed by their command . Never before had there been a training dive done at that depth in the last five years.

The question now is whether the decision to take the risk and do the deep dive is enough to charge the 2 senior leaders of Company 2-3, Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 with involuntary manslaughter.

The unit’s master diver, Senior Chief James Burger, and the officer-in-charge, Chief Warrant Officer Mark Smith, are facing a possible court-martial for their role in the decision-making process that led to the deaths.

After two days of testimony, the Article 32 hearing for both men was formally closed Thursday afternoon.

New details emerged during questioning from Navy investigators, who say there are two possible theories for why Reyher and Harris died.

Their connecting rope to the boat above could have gotten tangled around something inside the Superpond at Aberdeen Proving Ground. A survey of the bottom by NCIS agents found metal beams, copper wire, and other hazardous obstacles that divers could get stuck on.

Investigators also think both of Reyher’s breathing regulators weren’t working when they got to the deeper depths. That regulator is the Apeks TX-50.

During the hearing, it came to light that several of Reyher and Harris’s rescuers also had problems using the same type of regulator, either not giving enough air or freezing over while trying to get down to save them.

The Navy has since barred the use of that regulator in cold water diving.

According to witness testimony, though, the equipment failures still came after “deficiencies in decision-making” by Smith and Burger.

When the preferred method of using the MK-16 diving system was no longer an option due to electronic failure, Navy evaluators say they had other options to finish the mission besides scuba.

The Navy’s normal diving limits for scuba are 130 feet, unless a commander can prove operational necessity–but Smith and Burger still went ahead with what many witnesses called “a dangerous dive.”

After the February deaths, the Navy diving manual was actually changed, to specifically state that “there is no such thing as an operational necessity in training,” to make sure this never happens again.

The investigating officer of the Article 32 hearing will take about two weeks to make his recommendation on whether the involuntary manslaughter or dereliction of duty charges are proper in this case.

Then, it will be up to the commanding officer of Naval Expeditionary Combat Command at Little Creek whether to actually convene a court-martial.

Related: 

Supervisor on Navy divers’ deaths: ‘Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong’

Navy divers who died during training exercise remembered at JEB Little Creek

Two locally-based Navy divers die conducting diving operations in Maryland

Navy holds hearing to consider charges against two sailors in divers’ deaths