During a risky dive operation deep under the surface — and far inside the massive 510-foot USS Spiegel Grove that was sunk intentionally as an artificial reef in 2002 — a volunteer recovery team found the body of a missing 43-year-old diver from Orlando.
Joseph Dragojevich, a captain and district chief with the Lake County Medical Emergency Services, was located about 1:15 p.m. Friday in a dark, claustrophobic room, far from the nearest exit, and with his air supply apparently having run out. His friend, James Dorminy, 51, of Kissimmee, was able to follow a reel line out of the ship and make it to the surface.
“They were in an area that was closed when the ship was first sunk,” said Captain Rob Bleser, who coordinated the operation that included 32 people, many of them volunteers. “But over the years people have broken their way through the welding and chains.”
The Coast Guard took Dragojevich’s body to its Islamorada station. From there, the body was picked up by the Monroe County Medical Examiner for an autopsy to determine the cause of death. His equipment, which was still attached to his body, also was recovered and will be examined for information that could help detectives piece together what happened inside the ship.
For his 19-year-old daughter, the tragedy is heartbreaking. “I promise u daddy I will become better than u could ask for. ... I will make u proud,” Allison Dragojevich wrote on her Facebook page. “I will always b ur lil girl.” Dragojevich also has a 21-year-old son, Joseph Dragojevich II.
In 2007, three experienced technical divers from New Jersey perished inside the Spiegel Grove while doing a penetration dive. Dragojevich and Dorminy were diving a similar route.
But Bleser said Dragojevich was found in an even more difficult spot to exit than the New Jersey divers. He dove in on the port side of the ship, starting at 90 feet, and then went down a level to the well deck. From there he traversed across the ship that is 84 feet wide and went back up another level on the other side.
“Then he was in a small room where there was no way to get out except go back at least as long as he had come,” said Bleser, who is a captain with the Water Emergency Team of the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department. “With the air supply he had left it was unlikely he would have made it out in any direction he went.”
Dragojevich was the seventh person to die on the wreck. In 2007, Bleser also led the operation to retrieve the bodies of Jonathan Walsweer, 38, and Scott Stanley, 51, who were found in the deepest part of the ship near the pump room. Kevin Coughlin, 51, also was part of the group and died as he tried to reach the surface.
The first three deaths on the ship were individual incidents that did not involve penetration diving. In 2003, Eunice Lasala, 48, of Fredericksburg died from a medical condition after surfacing from a dive. In 2005, Tarik Khair-el-din, 44, of Indiatlantic also made it to the surface after running out of air but he panicked and did not drop his weight belt. He sank to the bottom and drowned. And in 2006, David Hargis, 48, of Kansas City died from a medical problem after making it to the surface.
There were 50,000 dives a year done on the ship during just the first two years, said Captain Spencer Slate, who owns the Keys’ largest dive operation, Captain Slate’s Atlantis Dive Center. “The ship is as safe as it can be. For the number of dives done on it, there’s a minuscule number of deaths, or even injuries.”