I sat upright in bed, pulse racing, scared, gasping, confused…
The nightmare, the same damn nightmare. I somewhat superstitiously believed the old wives’ tale: if you witnessed yourself die in a dream you would actually die, you would never wake. I had almost died in numerous dreams but I always woke before I witnessed my demise. Dreams where I drove a car off a cliff and I woke just before impact, getting shot or stabbed but just as the killing blow occurred, I woke.
Now the entire dream was about death, the entire dream was me, watching myself dead, dead floating in the water. Sometimes I was dressed in full ice diving apparel; dry suit, full face AGA mask, tanks, regulators, pony tanks, the full kit, with a death face inside the mask. Always though in the same position, neutrally buoyant in the water column, my arms and legs hanging below my body, dead. Sometimes I was completely nude, my entire body cyanotic, the ugly blue-grey of dead bodies, especially drowned bodies.
There were other variations; sometimes I was naked without gear, sometimes wearing SCUBA tanks, sometimes the mask was on my face, sometimes off, sometimes I clenched the regulator in a rigor mortis tightened jaw, but always dead. No spark of life, no hope of returning.
The dreams varied in duration, seconds to minutes but always concluding with the same terrified waking; panicked, confused, sitting in bed recapturing how the hell I had gotten there. No hope of returning to sleep with my heart rate thumping rapidly, sleep would just bring more dreams. I’d read or write or surf the web, my big decision now though was, “water or gin?”
January 2nd of 2008 the Boise Fire Department Dive Rescue Team conducted our annual ice diving training. “Dive rescue” is a misnomer. We were surface rescue and dive recovery professionals…. Except for ice diving, the rare instance where we could affect a dive rescue. Boise winters are normally temperate; most winters if the ponds do freeze the ice is only an inch or two thick. That ice can support a child but is pulverized by a 200-pound man wearing another 100 pounds of SCUBA equipment. By the time our diver reached the victim’s last seen point he was exhausted from slogging and falling through the ice and he had also destroyed the last seen point. We developed a technique we termed “vectoring,” we chopped a hole at the shore and the diver moved under the ice to the victim’s last seen point, vectored in by the line tender on shore.
I was the third diver of the day. Beneath the ice I laid back in a semi-recumbent finning position, my right hand against the bottom of the ice. I faced the shore towards my lifeline and the tender. Under the ice, the diver loses all sense of direction, so a lifeline positively connecting the diver to the shore is required for all ice dives.
Every five minutes we conducted diver status checks. The LED numbers on the dive computer read 2700, but that was wrong I had started with 2750. I had used more than 50 pounds per square inch (PSI) of air, so the number must be 2100. My vision had declined in the last few months, so that must be it – poor eyes. After the status check, I mentioned that I was having problems with the AGA – the mask was leaking more air than usual, and more difficult to breathe than normal. Shortly after these comments, I sucked the AGA mask to my face.
I was out of air.
I was confident though; I would change over the redundant supply valve (RSV), breathe off my pony bottle, and announce I was aborting the dive. I reached for the RSV on the left side of my AGA mask. The RSV is a simple two-into-one manifold allowing the diver to switch between his main tank and reserve pony tank. I attempted to manipulate the RSV for approximately 20 seconds to no avail.
I would have to access my redundant second stage regulator hanging around my neck and directly plumbed into the pony tank, the final failsafe. I made quick mental preparations for the removal of my AGA full-face mask. I removed my AGA mask, lifting it to my forehead, while pinching my nose to prevent aspirating water from the involuntary gasping that would occur when the cold water hit my face. I placed the second stage regulator in my mouth. I cleared the regulator then attempted to breathe and met complete resistance.
At this point, I realized things were very bad. I reverted to Marine combatant diver training and reached behind my head to verify my pony bottle was turned on. I quickly realized I was not in dive school and no one had turned my tank off.
Out of options, I decided to fin as vigorously as possible in the direction of the entry ice hole, at least where I thought it was. I streamlined my body, putting my left arm in the direction that I wanted to go, optimistically visualizing my right hand disappearing out of the ice at any moment. After finning awhile, I began to gasp compulsively and felt an overwhelming impulse to remove the regulator from my mouth.
I realized I wasn’t going to make it back to shore.
My thinking was muddled. I needed to communicate with shore. Voice communications were out but line pull signals could work. I pulled in slack hoping to tighten the line so I could give the four tugs, which would signal an “emergency.” Before achieving tension though, I realized I was losing consciousness. I was losing peripheral vision and saw the blackness closing upon me.
Twenty years earlier I had attended the Marine Corps Water Safety Survival Instructor Course, the instructors had informed us that when you lose consciousness, you experience tunnel vision, the tunnel grows smaller and smaller until it finally closes and you were no more. I had experienced partial tunnel closure while completing the requisite 50m underwater swim. I knew what was coming.
The panic portion of my mind believed the regulator I was clenching between my teeth was the reason for my body’s lack of air and screamed at me over and over to remove the regulator and take a big breath. The logical portion of my mind was fading but realized that the regulator was keeping water out of my lungs and had to stay in place. I placed the heel of my hand against the regulator to hold it in my mouth and pinched my nose with my thumb and forefinger; I chanted the mantra to myself, “Don’t aspirate, don’t aspirate, don’t aspirate, don’t aspirate…” until I lost consciousness by suffocating myself to death.
Stay tuned for Part 2 which will detail Swope's resuscitation, subsequent PTSD, and mental health journey toward personal resilience.