Friday, March 24, 2006

More water deaths

By Kevin Wadlow
Senior Staff Writer

Posted-Wednesday, March 22, 2006 9:10 AM EST

Coroner says reasons vary for recent spate

The number of visitors dying in Keys waters either while snorkeling or diving continues to rise this year.

Two people died while snorkeling off the Keys over the weekend, bringing to six the number of deaths on local waters in 2006 - a number higher than a typical annual total of such deaths.

Three of those deaths - none involving the use of scuba gear - occurred within the past eight days.

Friday, a 65-year-old man died while on a commercial snorkeling trip near Rock Key, off Key West.

The man, believed to be visiting from out of state, was found floating face-down during a morning reef trip. He was pulled out of the water by crew on a second dive boat. Despite rescue attempts on the six-mile trip to shore, he was pronounced dead on arrival.

The name of the victim and other details were not released pending completion of a U.S. Coast Guard investigation.

The next day, a deepwater spearfisherman died while free-diving to the Thunderbolt shipwreck off Marathon. Ivan Morffi, 29, of Miami was diving with friends when he disappeared. His body was recovered from the bottom, 120 feet down.

On March 15, a 47-year-old woman from Ohio died while diving off a Key Largo snorkel boat.

“Most people who go snorkeling are not at high risk for drowning,” said Dr. Michael Hunter, Monroe County's medical examiner.

In cases where a middle-aged visitor dies while on a snorkel trip, Hunter said, “Heart disease is often a contributing factor. Many of these people never knew they had heart disease, and the sudden increase in exertion put them at risk.”

The victim may die of a heart attack, or the incident could contribute to a drowning, he said.

“Water is unforgiving,” said Dr. Ernest Campbell of Ono Island, Ala., who runs a dive-medicine Web site, “People start having trouble, then they run short of breath and they can't do what they need to do to keep their heads above water.”

Snorkeling and diving are physical activities that can trigger a heart attack in people with pre-existing conditions or who are seriously out of shape, he said.

“It's not much different from somebody deciding to go out and run a mile,” Campbell said. “Your mind is making a commitment your body can't keep.”

Saturday's death of Morffi falls into a different category, Hunter said.

“These [free-divers] tend to be younger and physically fit with much more experience in the water,” he said. “But they may make repetitive dives to extreme depths.”

That can cause a buildup of carbon dioxide, which leads to oxygen deprivation - and possible blackouts. “If that happens, especially at depth, drowning follows,” he said.