Complex underwater rescue

By admin
11 August 2014

Drawing on immense skill and experience, divers save three women in a rare and difficult underwater rescue operation

On 13 October 2012 emergency services and rescue crews went to the aid of the 10-metre charter boat Miroshga, which had capsized at Duiker Island near Hout Bay, Cape Town. The exact number of people on board was unclear –reports ranged from 34 to 50 – but there were said to be multiple casualties. The situation was critical and crews needed to act fast.

Guardians: Fabian Higgins (Dive Supervisor, Rescue Technician, ILS), Elvin Stoffels (Diver, Rescue Technician, ILS), Western Cape Government Health; Captain PJ van der Merwe (Dive Supervisor, Provincial Coordinator) Diving and Water Policing; Captain Eben Lourens and Constable Heino Uhde (not present in the photograph) (Bomb Squad, Police Divers), Warrant Officer Gert Voigt and Warrant Officer Douglas Jones (Flying Squad, Police Divers); Sergeant Merwin Nel (Ravensmead SAP, Police Diver), Western Cape, South African Police Services Guardians: Fabian Higgins (Dive Supervisor, Rescue Technician, ILS), Elvin Stoffels (Diver, Rescue Technician, ILS), Western Cape Government Health; Captain PJ van der Merwe (Dive Supervisor, Provincial Coordinator) Diving and Water Policing; Captain Eben Lourens and Constable Heino Uhde (not present in the photograph) (Bomb Squad, Police Divers), Warrant Officer Gert Voigt and Warrant Officer Douglas Jones (Flying Squad, Police Divers); Sergeant Merwin Nel (Ravensmead SAP, Police Diver), Western Cape, South African Police Services. PHOTO: Provided

Dive supervisors and rescue technicians Fabian Higgins and Elvin Stoffels received a call informing them that people were missing, possibly trapped inside the upturned hull. Dr Robertson, director and dive supervisor, met Stoffels and Higgins at Hout Bay harbor where a high-speed tourist boat operator offered to take them to the scene of the accident. They departed with seven crew members on board, unsure of what they’d find at their destination.

The sea was extremely rough, with 3 to 4-metre swells. Fabian and Elvin got their dive equipment on and bailed overboard into the choppy water. As Fabian was the senior diver, it was decided he would be the first to assess while Elvin kept an eye on him.

Finding the cabin entrance was difficult - Fabian had no idea what the boat looked like upright and had to battle strong surges of current under the boat. Pulling himself down the side railing, he spotted the door and managed to pull himself into the cabin. It took a few seconds for his eyes to get used to the darkness inside the cabin, and he proceeded with caution.

The cabin was littered with debris – bags, papers, lifejackets, cameras, paint cans and ropes. Using the seat backs for support, Fabian started searching inside while the boat rolled and pitched in the water.

Seeing an open hatch, he instinctively stuck his head in and looked around. He saw two sets of legs from the knees. Both were motionless. He tugged on one set of legs and received no response. He then did the same to the other pair of legs and to his disbelief the person moved. All this took place in darkness, until the boat pitched and there was a second or two of light. The rest of the person’s body was out of the water.

Unable to get into the space without removing his gear, Fabian squeezed his right arm and head in. He took his spare breathing apparatus and pushed it against the legs, engaging the airflow valve at the same time in the hope that the person would realise it was breathing equipment. To his amazement, he saw a hand grab it. Seconds ticked by, then apparatus was dropped back into the water. His heart sank. Again he gave the apparatus to the person by knocking it against their legs, then started pulling hard on the legs, hoping they would understand.

After a few tugs the person started moving towards him. Fabian reversed out of the entrance and pulled the person down. He saw it was a woman. After getting her out of the hole, he made sure the breathing apparatus was properly in her mouth. He wrapped his left arm around her body and used his free right hand to navigate out of the cabin.

Just before they reached the doorway, the boat pitched and his head was knocked against something hard. Despite being dazed for a few seconds, Fabian didn’t let go of the woman. He continued out of the doorway, fighting the currents, and dropped lower than the boat to get out from under it.

Once they were free of the boat he inflated his diving gear to take them back to the surface. Seconds later they surfaced, the woman clinging to him. The woman was lifted into the NSRI boat and her condition assessed. Fabian was helped into the boat too and Dr Robertson examined his head to see if he’d been injured. There was no bleeding, so he was pronounced “okay” and after a few sips of water Fabian was back in the ocean. The rescued woman had confirmed there were at least two more people in the hull.

Entering the cabin a second time was easier as Fabian knew where to go. He put his head and arms into the open hatch and looked around. The legs had disappeared, which Fabian hoped was a sign that the person was still alive. With his air supply low, he pushed the spare breathing apparatus into the air pocket and blasted more air into the space, hoping the person would take it. With no response and out of air, Fabian decided to make his way out of the boat.

When he surfaced and was pulled back into the NSRI boat, Fabian saw the police divers had arrived.

Captain van der Merwe of the SAPS said that on arrival he could barely see the upturned hull of the capsized vessel. After a brief hazard assessment he told the divers that none of them were obliged to participate in the operation as diving in these conditions was life-threatening. However, all the divers decided to dive anyway. They were divided into three groups – Captain Lourens and Constable Uhde, Warrant Officer Voigt and Sergeant Nel, with Captain van der Merwe and Warrant Officer Jones as the third group.

Dr Robertson informed the police that one of his divers had already extracted a survivor who’d been trapped in an air pocket under the capsized vessel. He added that there could be two more passengers trapped or drowned inside the hull. Fabian explained to the police divers what the boat looked like and where the remaining victims were likely to be, noting that it would be necessary for the divers to take their breathing apparatus off in order to enter the small space.

The first two police divers, Lourens and Uhde, entered the water, with Voigt and Nel on standby. On the vessel, Jones and van der Merwe were also kitted up and ready to dive. The weather conditions remained horrendous: the wind howled at gale force speed and massive wind-driven waves broke over the hull of the capsized vessel. Van der Merwe called Warrant Officer Sutton in the Joint Operations Centre (JOC) and instructed him to organise lifting bags and more air from the South African Navy to attach to the vessel and keep it afloat. He also asked Sutton to bring more dive cylinders.

Underwater, Lourens and Uhde maneuvered their way under the vessel towards the confined space where the victims were trapped. Uhde saw the feet and entered the small opening where he found the two survivors. He tried to calm them while blasting fresh air into the space. He came out and indicated to Lourens to go in. Lourens could only squeeze the top half of his body through the opening. He removed his mouthpiece to speak to the two women, one of whom was completely hysterical. He tried unsuccessfully to calm her down, and the rough conditions caused him to swallow several mouthfuls of water. The fuel vapours were so overwhelming that he was struggling to breathe.

Realising they needed to regroup, Lourens told the women he’d be back. Both he and Uhde blasted air into the cavity and then surfaced, where they reported that there were indeed two women trapped inside one of the hulls of the vessel in a small air pocket filled with fuel and toxic fumes. Lourens briefed Nel and Voigt, got extra masks and the four divers went down again.

While Lourens and Uhde were with the women, Nel and Voigt cleared the debris and ropes to open a relatively safe route for the divers to bring the victims out.

Back with the two victims, Lourens explained they were going to take them out. He gave them masks and worked to get the life jacket off the woman closest to the exit but couldn’t undo the straps as they were tied too tightly. He contemplated using his knife to cut the straps but abandoned the idea because of the risk of cutting her in the turbulent conditions (sharks were another factor to consider).

The mouthpiece of his secondary breathing apparatus would not reach the woman’s mouth, so he had to remove his kit and hold the cylinder between himself and her. He ensured that she was able to breathe with the secondary mouthpiece. Due to the rough conditions, however, his mouthpiece came out several times and he swallowed more water. He tried to pull the woman down to help her out but her natural instinct made her pull back every time her face entered the water. Lourens realised it was not going to work.

Signaling Uhde to take over, he handed his diving gear to him and moved towards Nel and shared his air. Again, the tumultuous conditions made sharing close to impossible. Lourens knew he’d become a liability for the team as their attention was divided between him, without his kit on, and the women, so he indicated he was going to surface and they should continue without him.

Lourens free-dived out and Nel followed to ensure he surfaced safely. As he surfaced, Lourens vomited violently. Later, he said he was amazed the victims were lucid given the strong fumes in the small air pocket.

Uhde, Nel and Voigt continued. Uhde put his head into the space and explained they had to move immediately. He knew he had to pull the first woman out and after ensuring she had the mouthpiece in her mouth, Uhde mustered all his strength and pulled her out of the opening, where Nel and Voigt helped him to pull her through completely.

When Uhde surfaced with the victim the NSRI team immediately assisted. The three divers then went back down. The second woman worked with the team and was quickly taken out from under the vessel and taken to the surface. Jones went in to help the divers.

The woman was put into the vessel with Dr Robertson, where she was assessed and assisted.

Van der Merwe could see the divers were okay, just extremely tired, so he asked the skipper to try to move closer to the divers. Jones helped the divers get closer to the vessel, where van der Merwe threw a rope to them and pulled them towards the boat one by one.

They were so exhausted they could barely get into the boat and van der Merwe had to physically pull them and their dive gear on board. They were all lying on the deck vomiting, but they were okay.

They had drawn on every last bit of experience, skill and stamina they possessed in order to save lives, without losing their own in the process.

Guardians: Fabian Higgins (Dive Supervisor, Rescue Technician, ILS), Elvin Stoffels (Diver, Rescue Technician, ILS), Western Cape Government Health; Captain PJ van der Merwe (Dive Supervisor, Provincial Coordinator) Diving and Water Policing; Captain Eben Lourens and Constable Heino Uhde (not present in the photograph) (Bomb Squad, Police Divers), Warrant Officer Gert Voigt and Warrant Officer Douglas Jones (Flying Squad, Police Divers); Sergeant Merwin Nel (Ravensmead SAP, Police Diver), Western Cape, South African Police Services

In Memoriam – 8 months after being rescued from the Miroshga, Bronwyn Kruger gave birth to Lexie on 9 June 2013. On 20 March 2014 Lexie passed away after a painful battle with Krabbes Disease.

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