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No cause yet for NOAA diver's death

May 10, 2009

 

Aquarius staff diver Dewey Smith, who died while on an undersea mission at the undersea habitat off Key Largo on Tuesday, was remembered by many in the diving community this week — and even in Washington.

Condolences for Smith, 36, were offered on the floor of the U.S. Congress.

“My heart goes out to Dewey Smith’s family during this unfathomably difficult time,” said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who represents the Keys. “I had the pleasure of meeting Dewey during my visit to NOAA’s Aquarius facility last year. He was a delightful young man, full of energy and enthusiasm.”

Smith was a scientific diving specialist, a habitat technician for the Aquarius. He was working on a project just outside the facility with two other divers who found him unconscious on the bottom, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office says.

Smith was returned to the facility and CPR was performed. Two U.S. Navy divers helped in the resuscitation efforts, but Smith was declared dead at 3:47 p.m.

An autopsy performed by Monroe County Medical Examiner E. Hunt Scheuerman was inconclusive.

“The cause and manner of death are pending other studies,” he said, including an examination of Smith’s dive equipment.

Smith, who worked in the Upper Keys for the National Undersea Research Program since 2007, was a member of the aquanaut team for this week’s mission, which was a partnership with the U.S. Navy. He was staying aboard the Aquarius for several days.

The Aquarius is owned the federal government and operated through the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Lab director Andy Shepard told the Star-News of Wilmington that the death of Smith, a highly experienced diver, was a first at Aquarius.

“We have bumps and bruises, stubbed toes and occasionally some decompression sickness, but that’s to be expected when you’re having thousands of dives a year,” Shepard said. “But no one has ever got near something like this before.”

Typically, two Aquarius technicians accompany groups staying aboard the lab for periods of up to 10 days.

The current mission involved letting U.S. Navy divers gain experience in saturation diving — living in the habitat and working underwater for several days. No other information about the military-oriented mission was posted on the Aquarius’ Web site.

Staying aboard the Aquarius allows divers to spend many hours a day on projects at the Conch Reef site, in 60 feet water. The facility has been in placed off the Upper Key since 1992 and used for many scientific research efforts, and weightlessness training for NASA astronauts.

Smith is survived by his mother and sister. No information on services were available at press time.

www.keysnet.com

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