Michael McFadyen's Scuba Diving - Deaths on Himma, more info
On Monday, 7 October 1991 (the October long weekend), two Sydney divers, Richard Alistair YARROW, 31, and Bradley David SMITH, 33, died on the wreck of the 34 metre long tug Himma off Narrabeen, Sydney. The Coroner's Inquest into the deaths of the two divers was held at the Glebe Coroner's Court, Sydney, on Monday 11 May 1992 before Mr Derrick Hand, the then New South Wales Deputy State Coroner.
I attended the inquest and reported in the July 1992 DIVE Log in detail about the deaths and the inquest. The following is a brief summary reconstructed from inquest evidence and accounts from witnesses (generally accepted by the Coroner). There is some guesswork on my behalf as to what may have occurred to the two divers (this has not been disputed by anyone) but I feel it is an accurate assessment.
Evidence was given that Smith and Yarrow were experienced divers, holding Divemaster, Deep and Wreck Diver certificates. They had done numerous deep dives and had dived on the Himma about four times and two days earlier they had done a dive to 44 metres.
The two other divers on the charter boat went through at least one of the tug's two holds and then through the large hole in the hull. They then went to the area under the bridge where one (an Instructor and certified Cave Diver) dropped into the entrance to a compartment, looked around, and then exited. He had decided that it was not safe to further examine the area, although there was about 6 metres visibility. His buddy then put his head into the hole and then left. He stated that the instructor's fins and legs were covered in a heavy layer of silt after even this short examination and that the silt was slightly disturbed.
After descending from the charter boat, Smith and Yarrow reached the wreck while the other two divers on the dive were examining the prop. They went directly to the bridge and then entered the area under the bridge.
Another group of four divers from a second boat (which had tied to the rear of the first boat) passed the first two divers as they (the four divers) descended. They swam past the bridge but did not see Smith and Yarrow but one diver reported that he may have seen bubbles rising from the foredeck. They then ascended in pairs. The four divers left the water and then some time later the two divers on the first boat got back onto the boat. Straight away questions were asked as to what had happened to Smith and Yarrow. One thing was certain, they could not still be on the wreck and alive and the hope was that they had drifted off the wreck for some reason and were doing a blue water ascent in the strongish current.
Of course, as later events showed, this was not what happened. After much searching by Police and other divers after the incident, the bodies of Smith and Yarrow were eventually found in a silted up compartment. Before proceeding further, I will detail the description of the compartment in question given at the Inquest [note, this evidence is not necessarily a correct presentation of the wreck's layout]. The compartment is immediately below the bridge and below the main deck. It is accessed through a hatchway about 0.6 m square and there is a raised coaming about one metre high around three sides. A ladder extends from the fourth side. This side is about 0.5 metres off the rear wall. No direct light shines through the hatch. The compartment itself is trapezoid in shape, about 6 metres long, 4 metres wide and 2 metres high. It is narrower at the far (bow) end than where the entrance is located.
The compartment was formerly made up of a number of smaller rooms but the internal walls have been removed. A number of stanchions remain along each side running parallel to the hull. These are spaced such that a diver can easily fit between them. According to a Police diver, a number of additional stanchions are located near the forward bulkhead, about one metre off the wall and spaced only 0.4 metre apart, far too small for a diver wearing twin tanks to fit through. However, Paul Rosman of Pacific Coast Divers said he did not believe that they existed and had video evidence to support this. There is some electrical wiring and rotting material hanging down from the roof and the floor is covered in a thick layer of silt.
From the evidence at the Inquest, I believed that the following occurred. Either Yarrow or Smith entered the hatchway and moved far enough into the compartment so that the second diver could enter. They probably swam further into the compartment and looked about the smallish room. They were probably not very careful and stirred up the silt. As they reached the bow end of the compartment they turned around and were confronted by a thick wall of silt. They moved towards what they thought was the hatchway but this just stirred up the silt more.
They probably became apprehensive and started searching for the exit. The worsened visibility and the apprehension would have markedly increased the effects of nitrogen narcosis. Their efforts to find a way out would have compounded the poor visibility. Unfortunately, even if they followed the join of the roof and the wall, they would not have found the way out as the hatchway into the compartment is almost half a metre off the wall and unless they remembered this, they would have passed straight by the only way to safety. They obviously did not totally panic as they swapped their regulators at least once to use the air in their second tanks. Somehow, Smith became "trapped" behind stanchions in the bow (stated as existing by Police divers but disputed by Paul Rosman) and thought that he could not get out so in a last attempt he removed his tanks and pushed them through the space and then ran out of air and died. Yarrow was probably unconscious with hypoxia and ran out of air soon after.
A post mortem examination showed that Yarrow had died from "the effects of hypoxia [low oxygen level] due to oxygen depletion in the scuba diving gear he was wearing" and Smith from "the effects of lack of oxygen". Neither died from drowning.
The Coroner's official finding at the Inquest was that no blame was attached to any person, including the dive boat operator or the other divers. He found that Smith and Yarrow were properly trained and equipped. The only written finding was the actual cause of death which is reported in the paragraph above.
Since the time of the Inquest I had wanted to dive the Himma to see if the evidence given at the Inquest was accurate, especially in so far as it related to the compartment. I also wanted to experience the "feel" of the wreck and see what had enticed the two divers to enter what was presented at the Inquiry as a "black hole".
On 1 June 1996 I finally got the chance to dive the Himma. Some of the inquest evidence fell into meaning as I swam along the length of the wreck and through the holds and the hole in the hull. I went below the bridge and looked down through a hatchway into a compartment and saw another hatchway which I took to be the hatchway into the fatal compartment. I then continued my brief overview of the wreck before ascending.
On 18 August 1996 I again dived the wreck. My aim was to enter the area under the bridge and go through the first hatchway and look into the second hatchway and also video the scene. My buddy and I went from the rear hold to the bridge area and I looked into the hatchway. It was very light inside and the visibility was about four metres or so (that is, a bit less than that on the fatal day). The floor was covered in what looked like sand and it certainly did not look very dangerous.
I signalled my buddy to stay on the main deck as I dropped into the compartment and about two metres forward of the hatch I had just come through. My feet were immediately below the hatch and could be grabbed by my buddy if needed. I placed the index finger of my left hand on the silt to steady myself and not only did it go right through the silt, I think it may have even went through the rusted floor. Shit!! Immediately I sensed I had not done the right thing. The apprehension grew, I was getting a bad feeling about this place. I stayed still and again signalled to my buddy not to enter. The silt had not stirred up but I was feeling a little bit unstrung. I checked my respiration but I was still breathing at my normal rate. I was in control.
I looked around and shone my torch toward the bow of the wreck (my video was running from when I entered the compartment). Hell, my feeling was right, this was the actual compartment where the two divers had died. It had been so "easy" to enter the compartment, so inviting. There was no nasty black hole and, in fact, the compartment appeared quite well lit with heaps of light coming from the hatchway and through at least one hole in the ceiling. Despite the thickness of the silt, it was almost impossible to believe that you could get lost in this small, well lit compartment.
Was I right? I looked in the other hatchway and saw that it was less than a metre high (taking into account the heavy silt on the floor). It was certain no-one had entered that compartment in a long time. I was right, this was the compartment where Smith and Yarrow died. I looked towards the bow where the two bodies were found. I could see the stanchions on either side of the compartment (and in fact behind me) but not a "wall of stanchions" as testified by the Police diver. No, there was not a "wall" to be caught behind. There were however, heaps of wires hanging down from the roof and you could easily get tangled up in them.
I had had enough so I turned around and saw a small pile of silt rise from the floor where I had been resting. I had been so careful but I had still raised a fair bit of silt, although certainly not enough to cause me to lose my way. I went out the hatchway and looked back inside. It was now quite silty, but still not enough to look too menacing.
What had I learnt from this? Well, I was now pretty certain what had happened when Yarrow and Smith had entered the area under the bridge.
First, I think that they encountered a scene identical to what I had found. The water was quite clear and a fair bit of light entered the compartment through the hatchway and the hole in the ceiling. Second, they decided that it was not so dangerous that one had to stay outside and both decided to enter the compartment. They also decided it was not hazardous enough to use the lines they had (they did not have reels). Thirdly, for both of them to enter the compartment, at least one would have had to swim a fair bit into the compartment. He would have stirred it up (remember how I had not even used my fins but I stirred up a small pile of silt) and the other diver probably added to it. The first diver may not even have been aware of this as he swam further in to side of the other hatchway so his buddy could come in as well. They may have then moved a bit to one side and, upon turning around, encountered a formidable wall of silt that totally blocked out the only exit.
Finally, getting a bit panicky, they moved towards where they thought the hatch was and they stirred up the silt even more as they started to panic a bit. It got worse and the panic increased even more. They moved quicker and the increased breathing meant that their buoyancy was not very good. They bumped up and down, stirring up the silt even more. As indicated earlier in this article, they could not find there way out of the compartment and eventually they passed out and died. I calculated in my previous article that they could have used the air in their twin tanks in as little as 11.5 minutes and would have been dead even before the four divers off the second boat arrived in the bridge area.
There are many things to be learnt from this incident and what I have related about the Inquest and my subsequent dives on the wreck. These are:
After my dive as I decompressed under our boat, I thought of the horrible death that Smith and Yarrow must have had as they stumbled around and around the compartment, getting more and more disorientated. I also thought of how I had so easily dropped into that same compartment, even though I knew all of the above and was probably a more experienced, and I had hoped until that day, a wiser diver (at least I had recognised the danger and not proceeded). I shook, not with cold, but because it scared me a bit.