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Missing diver found dead in the wreck of the USS Spiegel Grove in the Keys

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.

2007 Tragedy

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.”

Dragojevich, who also worked as a flight paramedic, came to the Keys with Dorminy. They booked a commercial dive trip with Scuba-Do Dive Company of Key Largo for Thursday afternoon, which turned out to be a beautiful day for exploring the Navy shipwreck and all of its marine life. There were six other divers on the boat, but only Dragojevich and Dorminy conducted a “penetration dive,” which they did without a guide.

Warnings up front

Scuba-Do’s dive master on the trip, Kimberly Chapman, told a Monroe County Sheriff’s deputy that all eight passengers were briefed before entering the water that there would be no penetration of the Spiegel Grove or “decompression diving” during this trip.

In the sheriff’s office report, Chapman stated that Dragojevich and Dorminy told her that they were entering the engine room on the Spiegel Grove with guide reels. It’s not clear whether the pair were told not to do so. The three divers from New Jersey also died during a trip run by Scuba-Do.

A woman who answered the phone for Scuba-Do said the company had no comment and hung up.

Slate, who has written several SCUBA diving training manuals, said Scuba-Do shouldn’t be blamed. “We as dive operators give divers all the rules and safety regulations, but once they enter the water we have no control what they do,” he said. “It’s sad, but there are no old bold divers.”

Here is how the latest tragedy transpired. At about 4:15 p.m. Thursday, Dorminy reported to the crew of Scuba-Do that Dragojevich was missing. The captain of the boat notified the Coast Guard, which launched a search with a boat crew from Islamorada and an air crew from Miami. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission also joined the search.

Dorminy told two officers with the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office that he and his friend had attached a reel line, which is used as a guide, before they entered the mammoth ship, at its lower levels a maze of dark, narrow passageways and claustrophobic rooms that are not meant to be penetrated by divers because of the danger. Slate said the ship was made safe for divers, with four-foot holes created all over the first three levels to create wide open exits for divers.

The duo explored several levels of the ship, which rests at 130 feet, before beginning their exit. Dorminy was in the lead, with his friend reeling in the line behind him.

Partner’s last look

Dorminy said he last saw Dragojevich behind him, signaling with his dive light that he was OK. When Dorminy looked back again, Dragojevich had disappeared and the line was slack.

Dorminy said he swam back to find the line tangled. He searched as long as he could for Dragojevich before being forced to surface with his air running low.

Dorminy asked to go with the group Friday to help with the recovery, but the sheriff’s dive team members thought it was best for him to remain behind because of his emotional state.

Howard Spialter knows exactly how Dorminy feels. In 2007, he was the only survivor of the group from New Jersey. He knew the way out, but could not get his friends to follow. “It was one of the hardest decisions that one ever has to make,” he said of surfacing to save his own life.

He still loves diving, saying “the diving world is a large brotherhood and sisterhood of people who love to explore, sort of like astronauts.”

And on Friday, Spialter wrote on his Facebook page: “My sincerest condolences to the family. I do know what you are experiencing. May the diver’s memory be for a blessing to all.”

David Goodhue with The Reporter contributed to this report.