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Navy IDs sailors who could be charged in diving deaths

Jun. 20, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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NORFOLK, VA. — The Navy on Wednesday identified the two sailors who could face formal criminal charges in the drowning deaths of two divers at Aberdeen Proving Ground near Baltimore.

Senior Chief Petty Officer James Burger and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Mark Smith were named during an Article 32 investigation hearing at Naval Station Norfolk. An Article 32 hearing is the military equivalent of a preliminary hearing or grand jury investigation. The commanding officer of Navy Expeditionary Combat Command will ultimately decide how the case proceeds.

The Navy is pressing charges of involuntary manslaughter and dereliction-of-duty but has not specified how the two may have committed the offenses. The Navy hearing will help determine whether the charges will be referred to a court-martial, dealt with administratively or dismissed. A decision likely won’t be made for several weeks until after the hearing concludes.

The investigation is focused on the Feb. 26 drowning deaths of Virginia Beach-based Navy Diver 1st Class James Reyher of Caldwell, Ohio, and Navy Diver 2nd Class Ryan Harris of Gladstone, Mo.

They drowned while working at the Super Pond underwater weapons-testing facility.

The Super Pond is used to conduct shock testing of vessels, submarine systems and munitions. With a bottom measuring 300 feet in diameter and a maximum depth of 150 feet, the facility also has been used in testing torpedoes, missiles, warheads, amphibious and remotely controlled vehicles, underwater gun firing and acoustics.

Petty Officer 1st Class Fernando Almazon, who was the diving supervisor during Reyher and Harris’ dive, said the men were supposed to go to the bottom of the pond to see if they could touch or see a helicopter there and come right back up. It should have taken about four minutes each way. But they failed to surface, and other divers were sent in on an unsuccessful search for them. About 24 minutes passed before they were finally pulled up. Both men were unresponsive when they reached the surface. Their deaths were ruled accidental drownings.

Almazon said that everything that could go wrong that day did, although he’s not sure why.

The questions Wednesday delved into whether proper protocol for permitting such a deep dive was followed. Diving deeper than 130 feet requires the approval of a commanding officer. Reyher and Harris reached about 150 feet.

Defense attorneys suggested during witness questioning that the divers’ equipment may not have been working properly. One of the divers sent in to fetch the men after they ran into trouble had ice covering his regulator. Defense attorneys noted that the manufacturer of the equipment the divers were using has said it may not properly work at temperatures below 45 degrees. At the time of the drownings, the water temperature was about 40 degrees.

A team of divers that preceded Reyher and Harris got their tethering line tangled up in something unspecified. There are numerous metal objects on the pond floor.

The sailors belonged to an expeditionary mobile unit whose salvage operations have included TWA Flight 800, Swiss Air Flight 111, the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, and the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor.

The unit also provided damage assessments and repairs on the USS Cole and participated in humanitarian missions following Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 earthquake that struck Haiti.

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