A “disturbing” accident Sunday left one scuba diver dead and others with many questions about how that could have happened.
Forty-year-old Hua Liu was part of an expedition off Key Biscayne, about three nautical miles off Bill Baggs Cape, on the vessel BigCom Ocean.
There were about 40 divers on board, and all were instructed to stay with their “diving buddy” during the length of the dive, and never to leave him or her alone.
Panic set in when the group realized it was one diver short during a “roll call” when it was time to head back ashore.
Immediately, they began to conduct a search and called the Coast Guard at about 3:30 p.m.
The Coast Guard “immediately took action,” said Commander Darren Caprara, who is the chief of response for Coast Guard sector Miami and was supervising the case. They put out a broadcast, diverted a 45-foot Coast Guard boat that was headed to another location, called air station Miami to get a helicopter, brought in an auxiliary special team that does routine patrols and a 110-foot Coast Guard cover.
Within about 30 minutes of searching, the team on the diving vessel found Liu’s buoyancy control device (BCD), which is used to help a diver float, and tank.
“That’s the point when we became very concerned and more serious,” said Jaclyn Hesse, an experienced diver who was aboard. “It’s difficult to stay afloat without that for a long time.”
In tandem with the Coast Guard, which Hesse estimated arrived about 20 minutes after being called, the divers continued to search for Liu. Two dive masters from the dive vessel were towed from the boat so they could search the ocean floor. (The Coast Guard in Miami does not have divers who perform underwater rescue missions, Caprara said).
When they had been searching for about 40 minutes, a dive master raised her hand to tell the boat to stop. She dived to the bottom and pulled up Liu, who was still wearing her weighted scuba diving belt. “She was blue when they pulled her up,” Hesse said.
The Coast Guard staff then verbally instructed the dive master to pull Liu’s body aboard the diving vessel. Caprara said that is because the diving vessel was lower to the water and closer.
“Whenever you have a person in the water, particularly one who might be injured or hurt, the priority is to get that person safely out of the water and onto a stable platform where you can give medical care,” he said. “The dive vessel had a spacious open back deck and a low-to-the-water platform.”
At that point, the dive masters aboard began to give Liu CPR.
But it was too late.
The whole experience was “terrible,” Hesse said. Besides Liu’s tragic death, “There were children on board the vessel, and they were fully aware of what was happening,” she said.
In the wake of the incident, few details have been released about the circumstances leading to Liu’s death.
The Miami-Dade police department, which handled the case, said it is awaiting autopsy results, and it is not “readily apparent” if there should be reason to suspect foul play.
“Dive rules state you need to go where your buddy goes,” Hesse said. “There was something really wrong happening.”
Caprara also said further investigation is necessary to determine more specifically what happened during Liu’s dive.
“I can’t speak to that,” he said. “Something unfortunate happened.”