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Diving trip turns into death trap

Twelve inches of air was all that separated Dave DeBarger from a certain death inside the capsized dive boat Wave Dancer.

In pitch-black water teeming with diesel fuel, he swam to an emergency exit door. It wouldn't budge. Gulping for air as the water rose to the ceiling, DeBarger told himself, ``I am not going to die on this boat.''

Seconds later, his friend kicked through a glass window. DeBarger swam through it.

He was the last person to get out alive.

Hurricane Iris was more than 1,000 miles away when DeBarger and 19 other divers from Virginia boarded the Wave Dancer in Belize for a weeklong vacation in October 2001.

They spent a day exploring Belize's famed reefs, but as Iris drifted west in the Caribbean, the boat's captain decided to turn back and dock in a commercial harbor that has long provided cover for ships during storms.

DeBarger had monitored the forecasts. According to a National Hurricane Center advisory three days before landfall, a ridge north of the storm would likely force Iris ``on a more westward track toward the [northern] Yucatán Peninsula as indicated by all available [computer] models.''

That was about 400 miles away.

As Iris moved closer, forecasters shifted the track south and included Belize in their advisories, but predicted a Category 2 hurricane. Belize posted a hurricane warning and evacuated people from low-lying areas.

The divers, however, figured a relatively tame Iris would strike to the north. Just in case, they motored to the harbor and docked.

''We felt completely safe,'' said DeBarger, a public television production manager in Richmond with two sons and three grandchildren.

At 6:30 p.m., as rain began to pelt the windows, the divers sat down for a quiet dinner of curried shrimp and cheesecake.

All the while, Iris was defying predictions.

Forecasters assumed steering currents would weaken and slow the storm's path through the Caribbean. Instead, Iris unexpectedly surged in strength and roared directly into southern Belize as a Category 4 hurricane with 140-mph winds and a 10-foot storm surge. Hundreds of houses and the island's entire banana crop were destroyed.

On the 120-foot boat, the first sign of trouble was a thump, throwing DeBarger off balance. The boat had broken loose from its moorings when the storm surge lifted it from the pier.

The second thump came seconds later, tossing DeBarger across the cabin, where he landed spread-eagled and facedown against the window. The boat had rolled over. Suddenly the lights went out and water gushed in.

He surfaced in howling wind, horizontal rain slashing his face. DeBarger was hoisted into a raft by other survivors. He used a paddle to pound the hull of the boat to see if anyone was still alive inside, but all he heard was the rain.

He took a head count: There were three divers on the raft, but 17 were missing, including his best friend.

An hour later, it was clear they were lost. All 17 had drowned, including five married couples and DeBarger's friend, Glenn Prillaman.

Some of the bodies were found in the mangroves across the harbor. All told, the lost divers left behind seven young children.

Had he known Belize would take a direct hit, DeBarger said he would have gotten off the boat and sought shelter on land. A seasoned diver, he had weathered hurricanes before and had always known what to do. But shifty, deceptively powerful Iris took him by surprise.

It was a storm that took forecasters by surprise. They who later wrote the track errors were ``unusually large for westward moving systems in the deep tropics.''

But then, they didn't have the weather-observing equipment in place to make more accurate predictions.

As Iris cut a path through the Caribbean, hundreds of miles of open waters were unmonitored. The National Weather Service did not have a single moored buoy anywhere in the region, even though buoys help forecasters measure wind speed, wave height and, perhaps most important, ocean temperature, needed to predict a hurricane's strength.

Upper-air observations, which gauge steering currents and other weather conditions that can manipulate a hurricane's path, could have helped, too -- had they been available. Though the Weather Service agreed years ago to support weather balloon soundings in the Caribbean, many of the countries along Iris' path did not launch balloons as the storm passed by, including Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Cayman Islands, a review of government records shows.

Even Belize -- ground zero for Hurricane Iris and one of the countries to which the Weather Service had pledged weather balloon support -- did not provide a single sounding in the days before the catastrophic storm.

Besides the gap in land and sea observations, the Hurricane Center opted not to fly the government's $43 million Gulfstream jet even though it's uniquely equipped to track the steering currents in the environment around hurricanes. At the time, the jet was budgeted to fly only 200 hours a year for hurricane reconnaissance.

''To be fair,'' said Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield, ``the jet would very well have helped there.''

The Hurricane Center now gets 250 hours of flight time, but forecasters say that's nowhere near enough.

If the observations had been in place during Iris, said hurricane research meteorologist Mike Black, forecasters may have been able to detect the storm's direct strike in Belize and its sudden surge in strength and speed.

''The lack of data will do it,'' said Black, with the government's Miami-based Hurricane Research Division.

Four years after the storm, DeBarger is still recovering.

Just 18 months before the dive trip, his wife of 37 years had died of breast cancer. He found support in his friend Prillaman.

The night the boat overturned, DeBarger had to call his friend's wife.

''That was the hardest call I have ever made in my life,'' he said.

The families of the dead later sued the dive company, alleging the boat wasn't tied to the dock properly.

The $4 million settlement was divided among the 20 families.

DeBarger has begun diving again, but he still remembers every detail of that devastating storm.

''We thought we were going to get some wind and rain,'' he said.

``We figured we'd be diving the next day.''

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