The Day I Died

The Day I Died

It started like any other day in paradise. The sun was shining brightly and a light breeze brought me the salty smell from the tranquil seas that lay just a few yards east of my cabin. I had spent the last year scuba diving with Archie Forfar, at the Andros Reef Inn, in Andros Island, the largest island in the Bahamas, while detoxifying from a year in the jungles of Vietnam. Archie was one of the best divers in the world, and had made his home on the eastern shore of Andros a dozen years earlier, where he built the Andros Reef Inn.

A few months ago, Ann Gunderson, a diving instructor from the midwest, arrived to spend a week diving some of the legendary blue holes of the Bahamas. She was so enthralled with the local diving, she never left. Shortly after arriving she started thinking about the World’s Record of deep diving with compressed air. It stood at about 460 feet. Ann wanted to break it, and kept talking to Archie about it. Eventually she convinced Archie to do it.

There are two main problems with deep diving, actually there are a lot more, but the two main ones are, Narcosis and Oxygen toxicity. Nitrogen narcosis comes on at about 100 feet, and causes one to act little drunk, and not be concerned about important things. Maybe that’s why it’s called the Rapture of the Deep. Divers can get disoriented and die. Oxygen occupies about 21% of the air we breathe, and is necessary to sustain life on the surface of the planet. However, as you increase the depth, or pressure, oxygen becomes toxic at about 300 feet. The solution is to gradually increase your exposure, and hope that the body can deal with it.

At the end of the summer, Archie, Ann and I started training for our “dive”. Every day we would dive 5-10 feet deeper than the previous dive. Then we would have to spend hours decompressing under the surface so we would not get the bends, another critical component of survival in diving deep.

The bends occur when the dissolved gasses in the blood come out of solution too fast, and create bubbles in the bloodstream. Those bubbles can cause excruciating pain in the joints when they travel in the bloodstream towards the lungs and heart. The answer is to go up to the surface very slowly, certainly no faster than your expelled breath in the bubbles. Then depending on how deep one was at, and for how long, you would have to wait for an hour or two or more at 20 or 40 feet under the surface, for the gasses in the bloodstream to slowly come out of solution for the decompression to be safe.

Every day that summer we dove a little deeper. It was hard to describe the beauty of this place. Andros is separated by a narrow 35 mile body of water, that drops down to 6,ooo feet straight down, called the Tongue of the Ocean. The drop is called The Wall. All these dives were down the wall, next to beautiful coral mounds and alive with myriads of fish of all types. The water was incredibly clear. If you looked down, you sometimes could see large schools of 20 foot hammerhead sharks, looking like small tadpoles, in the depths. You felt safe thinking that you could probably get into the boat quicker that these monsters could get up and eat you. Unless, of course, you needed decompression and had to wait under the boat.

This day was like all the rest. We had been diving at the same location every day. Today we were going to go down to 350 feet. Yesterday we went to about 340 and I felt fine. The crew of the boat gathered 10 diving tanks and tied them to the line at 20 and 40 feet, so we could use them to decompress later on. We checked our gear and strapped our diving tanks on our back. The last thing we put on was the weight belt, that way if we had an emergency, we could drop it quick, and not have to untangle it from the rest of our gear. We then sat on the railing and fell backwards into the water. The boat was tied to a buoy that was anchored at the edge of the wall. We gathered around the line holding the buoy and checked each other. Then we jackknifed and started down the line. In this area, the beach gradually deepened to 120 feet, then all of a sudden it dropped vertically to about 6,000 feet. Standing on the edge of the wall and looking down into the darker water thousands of feet below, was unforgettable. This time we descended right past the edge. Soon the top of the wall was behind us and we descended into the dark abyss. We needed to do this quickly as the decompression time on the way up was relative to how long we stayed below. We didn’t want to linger. We had a mission.

The descent was unremarkable. Since we had done this so many times, we knew how we felt, and were always looking out for anything out of the ordinary that would create a dangerous situation, or in any case more dangerous than normal. This time we arrived at the outcropping we noticed the previous day at about 340 feet and continued slowly. All of a sudden I felt darkness closing in on me from the edges of my vision. I stopped disoriented. The darkness closed on me until I felt like I was looking through a tube. The tube got smaller and I was blind.

Then I saw myself slowly rising in the water. I was extremely peaceful. There were no sounds or any sensation at all—just peace and serenity. I saw below me, retreating in the distance, the three figures huddled together. I was in the middle, Ann was holding on to my left arm and Archie was holding on to my right arm. I was not concerned, the tranquility was total, the cares and problems of life gone. The figures slowly retreated further into the darkness.

All of a sudden I saw Ann reaching towards my face and purging my regulator. Somehow I thought she was hurting me and I instantly became concerned. In a second I was back in my body, and looking at the concerned faces of Ann and Archie beside me.  I gave them a “thumbs-up” and tried to tell them that we should continue with the dive. Archie emphatically shook his head and started up with me in tow.

I was not sure what had happened and was happy to go along with Archie and Ann. A little later we approached the first decompression point and we grabbed the line to steady ourselves. Soon we climbed up to the next decompression stop and continued, always checking the Navy decompression tables everybody carried when diving.

When we got back aboard our boat we started taking off our gear. Archie came up to me.
“What happened Peter” Archie said.
“I don’t know. I got tunnel vision and then it all went black. Then I found myself floating above you. It was really strange. I felt this incredible peace and tranquility all around me.” I said.
“A few divers have talked about the tunnel vision before, when they went to great depths. Must be the oxygen toxicity. We thought you were dead. You weren’t breathing and your eyes were vacant. Then Ann started force feeding you air, and soon you revived.”
“Thanks Ann. I  guess I owe you one.” I said.

That night at dinner, Archie told me that he thought it would be wise for me to take a few days off from diving.
“Take a break. Let your body get back to normal. Diving deep is very stressful on the organs and everything.” Archie said.
“I just heard on the news that we are about to get the last hurricane of the season.” Ann said.
“Maybe we’ll take a few days off also.” Archie said.

After dinner, Archie and Ann were playing pool and I remembered that I needed to fly to Spain soon and take care of a car that was being repaired after a small accident I had had the previous winter.
“I crashed my car last Christmas in Granada, and I recently heard from the insurance company that I needed to sign off on the car and pick it up soon. Maybe I’ll go now, and be back in a week and then I can join you again.” I said.
“That sounds good.” Archie said.
I then called the airline and made reservations to fly to Madrid from Miami.

Two days later I was flying in Iberia Airlines to Madrid. The next day I took a train to Granada and picked up my car.  I drove to Malaga with the intention of dropping the car off at my grandfather’s house, and flying back right away.

As luck would have it, I met a girl called Jaqueline and I was distracted for a while. I had dated Jaqueline a couple of years earlier and decided to stick around for a few days more. Days became weeks and I finally got on a return flight to New York on the 11th of December.

The plan was to connect with a flight to Nassau right away. I decided to call the lodge to see if anybody was going to be in Nassau, so I could hitch a ride back on the boat.

“Hello, this is Peter. I’m in New York and am taking a flight to Nassau this afternoon. Is anybody going to Nassau today, or tomorrow?” I said.
“Peter, oh my God. Haven’t you heard?” Connie, the cook said.
“What? Heard what?” I said.
“Archie and Ann died yesterday.”
Instantly I felt frozen. I couldn’t say anything.
“W..what..happened?” I stuttered.
“They had an accident diving yesterday.” She said.
“How did it happened. Where where they?” I said.
“I don’t know. Archie’s wife is flying in today. The people from the American sub base are here. Everybody is crying.” She sobbed.

The sub base was the Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center or AUTEC, where the US Navy tested all the submarine weapons and tracking systems. Many of the divers at AUTEC would come over for drinks at the lodge after working.  The base was a few miles south of the lodge. I didn’t know what to say. I told Connie I would call back.

I walked over to the bar and ordered a scotch and water. I didn’t know what to do. They dove without me and they died. They must have tried for the record. Above 400 feet they wouldn’t have had a problem. Archie and Ann went down to 350 without any issues a month ago. Presumably they had progressed, and they tried for the record at 460. Archie told me he wanted to try for 480 so maybe that’s what happened. If they were going for it, they would have other divers as backups and emergency divers. Where were they?

I stayed at the bar and missed my flight. There was no reason for me to go back to Andros. I had no plan to cover this. I had all my diving gear at the lodge, but I didn’t want to go there anymore. Not if Archie was dead.

I needed a place to stay. I needed a backup plan. I called a friend in Manhattan and told him I need a crash pad for a few days. He told me to come over.

I never went back to Andros. I got a job as a stockbroker in New York and eventually married a girl and stayed in the suburbs growing rugrats and mowing the lawn.

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