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Deep-water diver dies after surfacing
Nicholas Mevoli died Sunday in the Bahamas after a free dive, without oxygen or fins, after descending more than 200 feet.
The New York Times
LONG ISLAND, Bahamas — As Nicholas Mevoli lay prone, floating in the azure sea, attempting to relax, his exhales were audible. The countdown had begun, and he prepared to dive into Dean’s Blue Hole, hoping to reach 72 meters on a single inhalation, with no fins or supplemental oxygen. He began sipping the air, attempting to pack as much oxygen in his lungs as possible.
At 12:25 p.m. on Sunday, surrounded by 15 other athletes and observers, as well as five safety divers, he turned and submerged, face first and looking like a human arrow shooting into the darkness on what would be the last dive of his life.
Officials for Vertical Blue, a championship event in the sport of free diving, monitored and announced Mevoli’s progress by sonar, and all was progressing smoothly until he had trouble at 68 meters (roughly 223 feet) and seemed to turn back. Yet instead of heading to the surface, he decided to dive down again in an attempt to reach his goal, achieve his second American record. A few of his fellow athletes squirmed with discomfort, recognizing that his decision was a dangerous one.
“Diving to that depth with no fins, that’s a hard, physical dive,” said Mike Board, the British record holder. “I was thinking, OK, he’s going to have a hard time getting up.”
Still, Mevoli shot to the surface under his own power, after a dive of 3 minutes, 38 seconds. That’s when the scene turned nightmarish.
Mevoli ripped off his goggles, flashed the OK sign and attempted to complete the surface protocol that would make his attempt official by saying “I am OK.” But he wasn’t. His words were garbled, his eyes wide and blank. He tipped backward into the ocean and lost consciousness, which, while alarming, is not unheard of in a sport in which almost all the top athletes have lost consciousness at one time or another, though usually for only a few seconds. Mevoli was not so fortunate.
Five safety divers, one of them an Australian paramedic and all certified in life support techniques, hefted him onto a nearby platform where the event physician, Barbara Jeschke of Germany, went to work trying to revive him.
“There’s a problem with his lung,” shouted Marco Cosentino of Italy, one of the safety divers who meet the competitor at various stages to help bring him to the surface if he is in distress. They turned Mevoli onto his side and blood began pouring from his mouth and pooling on the platform before dissipating into the sea.
At first, there was a pulse, at times faint, at times strong. Within 15 minutes, there was none. The team cut off his wetsuit and began cardiopulmonary resuscitation in earnest. Attempts to revive Mevoli, which included three shots of adrenaline at the scene, continued unsuccessfully for the next 90 minutes.
Mevoli, 32, from Brooklyn, was a relative newcomer to the sport. When he dived to 100 meters in May, he became the first American to break that barrier, unassisted. He used a monofin that day, and completed the feat in 3:45. It is this type of free diving — rather than the variety known as Variable Weight, which utilizes a sled to take divers deeper than they could ever get on their own — that has exploded in popularity in recent years. Internationally, free diving schools are multiplying in destinations as wide ranging as Hawaii, Egypt, Indonesia, Greece and the Bahamas.
Vertical Blue, considered the Wimbledon of free diving, is an annual event that attracts the sport’s top athletes. It is held in a unique arena: Dean’s Blue Hole, a narrow, 200-meter deep limestone pit, the deepest of its kind in the world. It is set in a cove backed by cliffs that spill into a turquoise bay that laps the shore of an egg noodle of an island that is 72 miles long, home to 4,000 people and under the tourism radar.
This year, 34 athletes came to compete, representing 16 countries, with 26 national records set in the first six days of a competition that was scheduled to end on Tuesday. Athletes compete in three categories: Constant Weight (in which divers dolphin kick to depth wearing a monofin), Free Immersion (in which athletes pull themselves down to depth and back to the surface again without wearing fins), and the most difficult event, the one that Mevoli attempted Saturday, Constant Weight Without Fins (where competitors dive without fins at all).
Mevoli began his competitive free-diving career early last year. He won the title at Deja Blue, a similar competition held that year in the Cayman Islands. He won it again this year in Curaçao, finished third at the Caribbean Cup (an event won by William Trubridge, the Kiwi-born owner of Vertical Blue) in Roatan, Honduras, and took bronze in Constant Weight Without Fins at the world championships in Greece this September.
After his record-breaking spring and meteoric rise, Mevoli arrived in the Bahamas confident and aiming to break another national record, this one in the category of Free Immersion. His attempt to reach 96 meters on Friday went awry, however, when he turned at 80 meters and had to be assisted to the surface. He breached with blood dripping from his mouth. Furious, he screamed and cursed, certain he blew out his left eardrum, an injury that would end his competition.
A prop man in New York film and television production, Mevoli had already spent $34,000 this year traveling and competing worldwide. He was relieved when a physical conducted by Jeschke, the event physician, determined that he had not blown out his ear. Rather, he was diagnosed with an upper respiratory squeeze — when capillaries burst due to pressure exerted on the body at depth. Frequently, athletes surface with bloody noses after completing dives, and more than one athlete in this competition were found to have a sinus squeeze or a tracheal squeeze, and were cleared to compete the next day.
On Sunday, Mevoli was transported by body board from the platform to the beach, then lifted into a Honda station wagon, which was the event’s de facto ambulance. It was a 10-minute ride to the Vid Simms Memorial Health Centre, an immaculate yet remote 2,000-square-foot clinic run by American missionaries. The safety team, including the team leader, Ren Chapman of Wilmington, N.C.; Joe Knight, the Australian paramedic; Trubridge and Jeschke took turns continuing CPR, in the ambulance and in the clinic, where they were joined by a local doctor. Mevoli had pulmonary edema, according to one source at the scene, and 800 cubic centimeters of fluid was pulled from his lungs. At about 1:44 p.m., he died. According to the International Association for the Development of Apnea, the governing body of the sport, he is the first athlete ever to die in an international competition in its 21-year history.
Within minutes of his arrival at the clinic, athletes and their families began converging there. A tight knit group in the best of times, most sat on a patch of grass under a young jacaranda tree, the boiling sea visible in the distance. Some joined hands in prayer, others comforted one another in embrace. A light rain fell. A rainbow bloomed.
Chapman — who had known Mevoli for three years, trained, sailed and traveled together — soon emerged from the clinic, shirtless, his wetsuit dangling from his waist and addressed the gathering. “We wish Nick luck in his new world,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “He died doing what he loved to do, I know that.”
Board said, “It’s an extreme sport.” He was still mulling Mevoli’s crucial decision at 68 meters. “We all make split-second decisions and sometimes we pay the consequences. But his will to get the job done and win is what made him such a great free diver.”
But it was not just Melvoli’s competitive fire that was recalled. Others mentioned how the year before he eschewed a hotel or rental house to sleep in a local church that had been damaged by a hurricane. A Roman Catholic survived by his mother and five sisters, he interspersed training with building, and helped finish a new roof. Grant Graves, the lead judge in charge of the event, said, “He was universally loved.”
That point was underlined around 3:30 p.m., after most of the competitors had filtered back toward their rental houses, when a Japanese contingent arrived with flowers in hand. They asked to see Mevoli and pay their respects. Ten people in total visited his remains, wrapped tightly in a pristine white sheet, his hands rested in prayer. One by one, his divers and friends took turns whispering in his ear, sprinkling white blossoms on his heart and softly sobbing into one another’s arms.
Within two hours his body was on a plane to Nassau, awaiting autopsy.