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What caused the death of a diver in May 2010 off the coast of Carolina Beach?

Brian Freskos
StarNews

An investigation by the U.S. Coast Guard concluded that a woman scuba diving off Carolina Beach last year died because she rapidly ascended from a depth of 84 feet after mistakenly adding too much air to her dry suit.

Corrine Pierce, 50, suffered fatal injuries to her lungs in May 2010 while she was scuba diving with her husband and several other people at the site of a shipwreck in the Atlantic Ocean.

According to the U.S. Coast Guard report, a breath taken under water contains more molecules than a breath taken above the surface because air under high pressure is compressed.

“At 33 feet for example, each breath contains twice as many molecules as a breath taken at the surface,” the report reads. “Therefore, when divers fill their lungs with compressed air at 33 feet and ascend without freely exhaling, the volume of air doubles, causing the lungs to over-inflate and rupture.”

The report, which drew on interviews and evidence from the scene to form its conclusions, gives the clearest timeline to date of what happened that day at sea. The StarNews submitted a public records request for the report in May 2011, but did not receive it until Sept. 23, 2011.

The accident happened on May 8, 2010, when Pierce and her husband boarded the M/V Hawksbill with 11 other passengers and three crew members at the Cape Fear Dive Center. The ship traveled about 25 nautical miles to the wreck of the John D. Gill, a tanker that sank in 90 feet of water after it was torpedoed by a German U-Boat on March 12, 1942.

During the trip, several witnesses said Pierce appeared sick and vomited several times. She was a certified master diver and had completed 140 dives, 30 of which reached depths of more than 100 feet.

But on this voyage, Pierce was using a cave diving rig for the first time on an open ocean dive. She and her husband discussed foregoing the dive but decided to proceed.

Pierce got into the water about 9:30 a.m. The dive master told investigators that she appeared nervous and was experiencing trouble controlling her buoyancy. The dive master asked if she OK. She flashed the OK sign and dove to the safety bar at 15 feet to wait for her husband.

Her husband, whose name was redacted from the copy of the report provided to the StarNews, dove to the safety bar five minutes later but did not find Pierce, so he proceeded to descend even deeper to look for her.

Pierce apparently descended to 84 feet, where she introduced an excessive amount of air into her dry suit. The report notes that divers sometimes add air to the suits for comfort. But Pierce added too much, which made her buoyant, and she failed to quickly correct the error. She ascended rapidly to the surface, suffering lung injuries, or so-called pulmonary baratrauma, and drowned. Her equipment was functioning properly.

The crew on the Hawksbill heard Pierce surface about 9:40 a.m. She was floating face-up with her dry suit fully inflated. She did not have her regulator in her mouth.

The crew pulled the victim aboard and tried CPR. They recalled the other divers by banging on the dive ladder. The Hawksbill headed for Carolina Beach Inlet at approximately 10:42 a.m., and it was met by a Coast Guard vessel about 40 minutes later. Pierce was given CPR continuously until she was pronounced dead at 12:07 p.m.

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