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Family loses court claim over diver's death

Dec 22 2011

The family of a diver who died off Sidney has failed to have the man's diving partner found negligent by B.C. Supreme Court.

Glen Olov Ek and Tom Littler were occasional diving buddies who together made a recreational dive to the sunken warship MacKenzie in 15 to 18 metres of water in Haro Strait on Oct. 2, 2005.

The men descended to the deck of the MacKenzie, then to the ocean floor, before returning to the surface, summarized Justice James Shabbits in his reasons, released Wednesday.

Following their return to the surface, Ek died from an air embolism, brought about by improper breathing during ascent.

A coroner classified Ek's death as accidental.

But Christine Louise Ek, executor of Glen Ek's will, took Littler to court alleging negligence.

Littler told police after the death that the two had not been on the wreck long when Ek signalled that he wanted to go back up. Littler checked his own air supply and realized it was 600 pounds per square inch - abnormally low.

Ek signalled to Littler that he had 1,500 psi in his tank.

He expected the air supply at that point to be closer to 2,000 psi. An investigation found that Littler's pressure gauge was calibrated so that it showed he had 200 psi more than he actually had.

The men worked their way along the deck of the ship to a depth of 45 feet (13 metres). Littler found it hard to breathe through the regulator and the gauge had dropped to 400 psi.

Littler grabbed Ek's auxiliary air supply, but the mouthpiece broke. Littler put his own regulator back in his mouth to draw another breath before signally to Ek that he needed the regulator out of Ek's mouth so the two could breathe in a buddy system.

The two decided through hand signals to abort the dive and they resurfaced quickly.

Littler later told police: "I could feel my ears and my throat and my sinuses popping at high speed and we're coming up into the shallower and shallower depth."

Rapid ascent can put divers at risk of lung rupture as a result of air in their lungs expanding.

Littler testified at the hearing that he was not aware that Ek, too, was in trouble.

"He said the only thing he saw Mr. Ek do was give him the regulator and he saw no signs of panic," Shabbits wrote. "He said they were in relatively the same position when they surfaced and that, upon surfacing, Mr. Ek yelled 'Help' once."

Littler said he did not initiate the ascent and he did not know how it started.

The coast guard later tested Ek's primary and backup regulators and both failed. The "octopus" secondary regulator was missing its mouthpiece and was incorrectly adjusted. The coast guard investigation determined that Ek's regulator was set lower than what the manufacturer recommended, and the setting would have affected the secondary regulators.

Littler's equipment passed the coast guard tests, though the pressure gauge was not functioning according to the manufacturer's specifications.

Ek was aware that ascents should not be faster than 60 feet (18 metres) a minute and he was aware of the danger of holding his breath while ascending, Shabbits found.

"I have concluded . . . that it is more likely than not that Mr. Ek held his breath for at least a portion of the ascent, and that the holding of his breath caused the injury that led to his demise," Shabbits wrote.

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