Thursday, 18 September 2003 00:00

The 18th Minute

By Trevor Jackson - Esperance Star

I was at a party recently. The conversation was lively and somehow we got onto the subject of age. All the clichés were there; "I'm 53 but I still feel 17 inside", "You're only as young as the woman you feel". It occurred to me that of all the people in the room, I would be the only one who would say that I felt older than I was. On the way home I sat in the cab staring out as the lights went by, wondering why it was I should feel so drained, so much in need of a year long sleep. Id been working a lot that much was true, the boat had never been busier, almost constantly at sea for months, but Id done that forever so it couldn't just be that. Something else was there.

Nearly four months had gone by since the accident. Since we pulled a blue faced foam gushing diver onto the back deck of Esperance Star. Devoid of life, sightless eyes staring at the sky. We put him in a chopper and he lived.. It was a mixture of luck and good management. The people involved had done a lot right that day and apart from some uninformed criticism, the weeks that followed the accident were a healing time for everyone that had been present, not just the in water victim. Well at least that what I told myself, but looking back I think I see now that the healing process has only just begun, things actually got worse following that day. The system that the government had put in place to protect people in a workplace, can in certain circumstances do more harm than good.

You can put the people involved in that accident into two categories; those that have gotten over it and those that haven't. One thing separates the two groups quite definitively. The group that haven't gotten over it, were subjected to a witchhunt by the Dept. of Workplace Health and Safety. The reason they were subjected to a witchhunt was that they were in the firing line with regard to who would be to blame for this accident. They had to find blame Now I wont go into details about the woes of the others involved in the investigation, I'll only speak for myself on this one.

We live In a society where individuals are reared on a diet of offloading blame onto the next guy and being responsible for nothing. I can go to a pub get flogged off my head and then win a court case against the pub when I faceplant the pavement up the street, after I probably argued till I was blue in the face when the barstaff told me Id had enough and that I should settle down. I can take up an extreme sport fully aware of the dangers. Make a stupid mistake, get injured, then get paid out at the cost of some poor soul who was simply providing the service I had asked them to.

One thing I will say about the moment that accident occurred, everyone who could have possibly had the finger pointed at them over the incident, everyone that modern society could have assigned some type of blame to for it, was adversely affected in the way they reacted to the incident because of the thought of that impending blame. If even for a split second we react slowly or stop to "˜consider the consequences", we are not providing the kind of rapid treatment to a victim that he or she might otherwise receive. Common advice when an accident occurs in a workplace is to document all your actions as you make them on some sought of time scale. In a dive accident for example I might write down

9.34am Diver seen on surface
9.35am Dinghy retrieves diver
9.36 am Diver to ES
etc etc etc.

I mean come on, is this really necessary? Does it help the situation at all? The short answer is no, we do these things to "˜cover our arse'. So when a problem occurs, instead of spending every second tending with the real issue, we waste time bullshitting around with this type of documentation so that when were done saving a person we can later defend ourselves against someone who might say we didn't do a good enough job when we were saving them. In other words, in the act of actually dealing with an emergency, we are further burdened by the fact that in some way big or small we will have to defend our actions. I remember steaming in after the Myron accident and thinking, "well that was fun, now the shits really gonna hit the fan".

When accidents like these happen the investigation begins almost before the boat is even tied up. Dive gear must be secured, initial statements taken, thumbscrews applied. When I had my first interview with the department regarding this particular incident the investigator said that in future if we were to have another accident I should phone him before I get to port so he can interview everybody before they leave the ship. I can tell you that if Id have known that before docking there is still no way I would have subjected anyone on board to that type of grilling, given what they had already had to deal with that morning.

The interview he and I had consisted of him basically asking me to dob someone in for what had happened, it lasted for nearly three hours. At the beginning of the interview he asked me not to say anything unless I "knew it had happened". He then asked a series of questions and when I replied "I don't know", he asked me to reconsider my answer. For example at one point he asked me who had filled tanks that morning, I replied that I didn't know, he then asked me, "well who could have filled them?", thereby asking me to speculate when he had earlier clearly asked me not to speculate. At no point did he ask me what I thought had caused the accident and when I offered my professional opinion he said he wasn't interested, despite him not even knowing what a Closed Circuit Rebreather even looked like and only ever having done 30 odd open circuit dives in his life. In the end I insisted on putting something about the cause of the accident into my statement and he was more or less forced to record it. He then confiscated some of my dive gear for "testing'.

When he finally left I couldn't believe the line of questioning he had taken. What a meticulous and ruthless hunt this really was going to be. Other interviews were along similar lines, the "so who do you think was to blame" line of questioning seems to be the standard operating procedure. Now I'm not suggesting for a moment that workplace accidents not be investigated. One would imagine that the information gathered may help in the prevention of further accidents, but this didn't for a split second seem to be the object of the exercise. All the parties involved were given a similar interview; it didn't take long to realize we were all "˜suspects' in some sought of surreal crime. Imagine having been through that type of trauma, done your level best, then to be put under the critical microscope for what, as one observer put it was, "a life no doubt saved".

Until yesterday, the 11th of September 2003, I hadn't touched my rebreather in nearly four months. It sat still wrapped in plastic, the batteries in a packet beside it, waiting to be picked up and brought to life. Diving using this type of equipment had been a true passion for many years, now it was dead. Whenever I looked at the unit, I had a chill run through me. It had become a lump that had to be shifted from one bunk to another, had clothes piled onto it, been tripped over and cursed. I thought it was because of what we had seen that day. I thought that perhaps subconsciously I had lost my stomach for it, lost my nerve. I justified my lack of diving by claiming that it was because I was too busy, too tired, too sick; too bored. But none of these were the whole truth.

The truth is that I just didn't want to be there anymore. My beautiful boat had become the bain of my life. My joy in helping people discover the underwater world had dried up and shriveled. I thought long and hard about giving it up. Not because some ill informed twits had had the odd dig from anonymous internet keyboards, but because despite my best efforts to do a good job, and having done what I considered to in fact be a good job, I was being made feel guilty by a Govt. Dept which is meant to look after my interests as much as the next guy. My mental health, and the mental health of my colleagues, had suffered. Suffered at the hands of the Dept of Health and Safety. In a tangible way we hadn't been injured, there were no scars or wounds. But its fair to say we were no longer functioning at full capacity either, and some were affected more than others.

I sat on the top deck of the boat yesterday staring at my rebreather, saying, "go on, just pick it up, do the pre-dives and go for a lap, don't let this shit get to you any longer".

Most people would consider me a tough guy, big, mean strong, and I haven't always lived strictly on the right side of the law, but this was a hill I was struggling to climb. To put the unit on and get into the water was somehow a symbolic way of thumbing my nose at the guilt trip the Dept. had laid on me, a way of saying no I'm not taking this shit from you any longer. I flicked on the handsets to start the pre-dive warm-ups, maybe I'd just see if the batteries were still charged. Before long I was standing at the jump gate on the starboard side of the ES and talking to the dive master, telling him I would be taking it easy and doing a "˜no-deco dive' with 17 minutes on the bottom. The rebreather had booted up perfectly and was urging me on. I jumped in.

The St Paul on a winters' afternoon is one of the worlds magical places. Giant schools of kingfish swam in a mesmerizing roulette wheel pattern. Estuary Cod darted in and out of the machinery spaces as baitfish were swept down current onto the wreck from the north. I hovered like a spaceman at 38metres, checked the PO2 displays and descended the final few feet to the decks of the antique ship. What a place I thought. The visibility stretched out to about 30 meters and it was easy to forget the problems of the world and become once again hypnotized by the joys of technical diving, not just getting there, but being able to stay there a while too. Sometimes I feel like my progression into technical diving was really about me wanting to become more of a part of the depths, not just an intruder. I felt the weight of the past few months begin to lift. This type of diving was a gift that only a few people had had the chance to discover. Outsiders had been making me feel like the sport I enjoyed was a bad thing, I was beginning to picture them hunting witches in the 18th century, or being on constant lookout for Martians or Communists, history would eventually prove them fools.

I took another glance at my computers, 17 minutes had elapsed, at the 18th minute I knew I had been cleansed, I would regain control from now on. I ascended to 25 meters and turned to take a final glance at the spectacle, "its good to be back", I thought, and made my way back to my own world.