Fatal Diving Accidents in Alpine Waters: A Series of Triggers Leading to Disaster?

Research Article

Austin Sports Med. 2017; 2(1): 1014.

Fatal Diving Accidents in Alpine Waters: A Series of Triggers Leading to Disaster?

Pacher A¹, Cleveland S², Muth T³ and Schipke JD4*

¹Legally Sworn Expert for Diving Issues, Unterach am Attersee, Austria

²Institute of Neuro and Sensory Physiology, Heinrich Heine Universität Düsseldorf, Germany

³Institute of Occupational and Social Medicine, Center for Health and Society, Medical Faculty, Heinrich-Heine- Universität Düsseldorf, Germany

4EFESC Research Group Experimental Surgery, University Hospital Düsseldorf, Germany

*Corresponding author: Schipke JD, eFESC Research Group, Experimental Surgery, University Hospital Düsseldorf, Germany

Received: May 09, 2017; Accepted: June 01, 2017; Published: June 08, 2017


Scuba diving fatalities during the descent are rare. We present a case series on nine such fatalities. All dives lead to great depth of =60m. Common to all dives was an attempt to ascend already after 10±3 min during the descent. The ascent, however failed in all but of two of the cases. In these two cases, the divers arrived at the surface but were dead. All of the victims had drowned. Death ensued 14±3 min after the onset of the dive

We suggest that a chain of triggers before or during the descent had occurred, each of which added to the ever-increasing stress. It is a tragic sign of insufficient experience that all of these divers died wearing their weights. Recall that prompt and correct reactions can be delayed/lacking due to the oxygen-induced restricted manual dexterity and reduced cognitive performance. Cognitive performance at such great depths will, on the other hand, be considerably impaired by narcotic effects of nitrogen. To circumvent the buildup of life-threatening stress due to a series of triggers, a descent stop at 5m is recommended to ‘unload’ stress, similar to the safety stop while ascending to unload nitrogen. The duration of the descent stop might vary and should last until stress is greatly reduced. It is further recommended to stop every 10m, in case a new trigger has become active and needs proper response. Finally, regular problem solving exercises will reduce stress in a worst case scenario.

Keywords: Scuba diving; Stress; Cold; Icing; Experience


Diving in Alpine waters has its own charm. A typical Austrian mountain lake suited for diving would be located at an altitude of 500m and above. According to American standards altitude diving starts at a height of =300m, where different decompression rules must be respected [1]. The Austrian mountain lakes would have surface water temperatures close to 20°C in summer and good visibility. Because of the altitude and the relatively low water temperature at greater depths, these lakes also pose their own risks.

After some severe accidents, a few Austrian diving centers founded a working group to improve diving safety (the Working Group Diving Austria) by developing rules and supervising them. Andreas Pacher (AP), a dive instructor, was one of the initiators of that project. Nevertheless, a series of 34 diving fatalities happened between 1996 and 2009. Of these fatalities, 23 were analyzed by AP, who is a court-certified expert in diving accidents. AP’s particular attention was directed on whether the accidents had some points in common.

Here, nine of the 23 cases are presented that happened during descent and for which computer profiles of the dives existed. In addition, some similar cases are presented that were found after an intense literature search.


Twenty three computer profiles were analyzed for particular characteristics. Age and gender of the decedents were assessed. Unfortunately, additional demographic data like body mass index, smoking habits, physical fitness or medical issues were either no longer accessible or confidential. Among the diving specific data breathing gas, state of the dive equipment and type of suit were assessed.

In addition, a literature search was done using the Pub Med database, supplemented by secondary search through screening references of obtained hits, Web sites of diving sport associations or reports on fatalities during scuba diving. Hits in English, French and German were accepted.


All decedents were males aged 35±7 years (mean standard deviation). None of the divers was a local but they had travelled from distant places, as Germany, Czechia and Poland, i.e. from lowerlying regions. The divers were experienced, with the number of dives varying from 200 to 5.000.

Nine of the 23 dives exhibited similar profiles (Figure 1). The other 18 cases with different profiles are not presented in this cases series. While descending the divers attempted at least once to ascend but failed. They were found dead at the bottom with the exemption of divers ‘1’ and ‘2’, who were found dead on the surface.