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Search continued for missing Vandenberg diver; Illinois man not seen since Saturday

January 9, 2015

A search by sea and air continued Tuesday, seeking an Illinois man lost during a Saturday dive on the “Vandenberg” shipwreck, south of Key West.

James Bakazan, 53, of Woodstock, Ill., joined a group from the commercial dive boat “Dream” as they headed down to the stern of the 522-foot-long shipwreck reef.

The four other divers in Bakazan’s group on the Lost Reef Adventures morning trip said they descended toward the “Vandenberg” when “Bakazan suddenly did a rapid ascent without giving any distress signals or any indications he was having trouble,” said Deputy Becky Herrin of the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office.

When Bakazan surfaced, another diver went to assist him.

Before he could be reached, Bakazan submerged beneath the offshore waters about seven miles off Key West. That apparently was the last time anyone saw him.

Divers from other boats at the popular dive site immediately helped search the area along with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Dive Team.

Patrol boats from the U.S. Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also took part. The Coast Guard was still searching at press time Tuesday.

Volunteer technical divers, who use advanced gear that allows longer dives in deep water, helped search accessible areas inside the submerged military ship.

“That’s a very different type of dive and they did get in there,” Herrin said, “But they had no success finding him.”

Sheriff’s Office divers searched waters downcurrent of the shipwreck, but poor underwater visibility and strong currents hampered their efforts.

The Coast Guard largely based its search on the probability that Bakazan was caught by currents and “drifted off downcurrent,” Petty Officer Mark Barney said Monday.

The Major Crimes Unit of the Sheriff’s Office assisted the investigation of the accident.

The “Vandenberg,” scuttled in 2009, lies in waters 140 deep. Many divers stay above the main deck, about 90 feet down.

Shipwrecks are considered an advanced dive, especially in waters with occasionally strong currents. Divers who said they were at the “Vandenberg” Saturday posted online reports that sea conditions were moderate.

The “Vandenberg” was safety prepared before sinking to limit the enclosed places where divers could be trapped.

 

It was the second serious Lower Keys dive accident in less than a week. Robert Carney, 50, of Summerland Key died Dec. 30 while spearfishing with scuba gear in 72 feet of water near the Dry Tortugas.

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