From the moment sailors enter training to become Navy divers, they’re given one absolute commandment: Never leave their dive buddy.
It’s a sacred bond, reinforced in training and in the fleet. In the near future, Navy Diver 2nd Class (DSW) Ryan Harris will posthumously receive the service’s foremost non-combat heroism award for taking that commitment with him to his death, official sources confirmed to Navy Times.
Harris and his dive buddy, Navy Diver 1st Class (DSW) James Reyher, perished Feb. 26, 2013, 150 feet below the surface of what’s called the “Superpond” in Aberdeen, Maryland.
Though no one witnessed the training dive — or at least what happened during the two diver’s final minutes on the bottom — the investigator concluded that during the dive Reyher became trapped in debris on the pond’s bottom and Harris — who could have come to the surface on his own — spent his last breaths trying to free him.
“The award has been approved and his award will be presented to his family in Kansas City at sometime in the future,” said Lt. Cmdr. Stephanie Murdock, spokeswoman for Navy Expeditionary Combat Command. “The details are still being worked out as to when.”
Harris’ parents, Gordon and Deborah Harris, live in Kansas City. Both parents traveled to Norfolk in January for the courts-martial of Senior Chief Navy Diver (EXW/SW) James Burger — Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, Company 2/3’s master diver — who was convicted Jan. 17 of negligent dereliction of duty for approving and conducting the dive during which the two sailors perished. The dive was a final evaluation prior to an overseas deployment. Berger was reduced in rank to chief petty officer and lost his master diver qualification.
Four others agreed to non-judicial punishment as a result of the incident.
The Harris’ did not respond to phone calls seeking comment by Aug. 22. Harris, who was 23, is survived by his wife, Deanna, and two daughters.
The Navy’s investigation concluded that the deaths were the result of “multiple points of failure in leadership and decision making” on the part the unit’s leadership both on and off the dive site, according to a copy of the report.
But the investigators concluded Harris acted heroically based on evidence they uncovered, according to the April 13, 2013, command report recently obtained by Navy Times. Most names and ranks, including that of the investigating officer, were removed by officials prior to the report’s release.
When the pair of divers left the surface on the training dive, they were tethered by a 10-foot buddy line. Harris was also connected to the surface by a tending line, being handled by sailors on the surface.
“We will never have confirmation on the potential circumstances that prevented both divers from terminating the dive and returning to the surface,” the report concluded. “There are definitive indications that one or both divers werefouled or trapped on the bottom of the Aberdeen Superpond,” the investigator wrote in the report.
The report cited evidence that it was difficult for the topside tenders to pull the divers to the surface after they stopped seeing bubbles.
“I do not believe Reyher and Harris realized they were fouled until they tried to leave the bottom,” the investigator concluded. “It is reasonable to infer that the buddy line had become fouled on one of the objects on the bottom and at some point Reyher became lodged at the bottom.”
The Superpond’s base is littered with debris from years of military testing, the report said, all of which pose fouling hazards to divers.
All efforts to send rescue divers to find and help the pair were thwarted by mechanical difficulties with their diving gear, the report said.
It was only when the tending line was transferred to another boat, where a winch was used, that they could they dislodge the unresponsive divers from the bottom.
Neither were breathing or showed signs of life on the surface, though efforts were made through CPR to revive them, including pressing them in a recompression chamber.
On the surface, two key pieces of evidence emerged: Reyher’s wetsuit and breathing gear were covered in mud, suggesting he had been entangled on the bottom.
Reyher, the report concluded, ran out of air first, due to what it termed the “complexion and equipment condition when he reached the surface.”
In addition, the tending line was wrapped around Harris when he arrived at the surface, evidence the investigator said meant that “he may have tried to pull himself and Reyher off the bottom.”
There are no indications that Reyher or Harris attempted to sever the tending line or buddy line with their knives and neither diver tried to dump his weights or inflate his life preserver to quickly come to the surface.
“The opinion of the investigating officer is that Harris exhausted himself in an attempt to save Reyher,” the report concluded. “Both divers resisted the natural instincts of self-preservation in order to expel [their] last breaths in an effort to save each other.”