Underwater Adventure: Cave Divers Face Death

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A stillness descended on the dive site, and Theo and Marie Dryer left the pool. Underwater, Herbst finally saw a lone light: it was Don Shirley. Herbst says he asked Shirley if he was OK, and Shirley motioned for the writing slate. . "I pulled the slate out," Herbst said, "and I gave him the slate, and he just wrote, 'Dave is not coming back.'"

Rescuing the Rescuer

"The whole world began to spin, literally to spin," said Shirley. "And it was like I was in another world, like in a dream."

With his controller broken, Shirley's air mixer began to produce a toxic cocktail in his body, and he began to suffer from the decompression disorder known as "the bends." Shirley faced nearly 8 hours of decompression before he could emerge from Bushman's.

"I did not know whether Don would be able to last, mentally and physically from that depth, he was too deep," said Van Schaik.

Above the hole, medical personnel readied a decompression chamber.

"You can say a lot of things about the personalities of people who get into water. You can like them, you can dislike them. But at the end of the day, the fact is Don had such a strong willpower to live… it was just not an option for him to die," said Van Schaik.

Finally, 12 hours and 23 minutes after starting his dive, the call was made to bring Shirley out.After seven hours in the decompression chamber, his condition had stabilized enough for him to be transferred to a hospital.

At Bushman's Hole, support divers and friends return to the water's edge to memorialize Dave Shaw.

"You are where you wanted to be. I'm going to miss you, mate," said Herbst.

Rising From the Deep

A few divers slipped back into the water to retrieve loose lines and equipment from the failed dive, and then a police diver whispered something into Herbst's ear.

"He says, 'We saw Deon's body,'" said Herbst. "They actually saw Dave's body, with Deon hanging below him. And I just couldn't figure this out. You know, because we must have swam right past them… and we just didn't see it."

The bodies of Dave Shaw and Deon Dryer had somehow floated up from the bottom of the cave and lodged in a crevice near the surface.

"[Dave] promised to bring Deon back, and he did," said Van Schaik. "God works in mysterious ways. I think if you do deep diving for long enough, you have no choice but to believe that there is a higher power out there, because Dave bought Deon back."

Shaw also brought something else back: the helmet camera. And along with it, the answers to what really happened in the darkness of Bushman's Hole.

"Without this [camera], there would have been so much speculation as to what happened to Dave. Did he give up? Did he do something that was completely stupid?" said Shirley.

What Went Wrong

According to Shirley two critical events triggered the tragedy. First, the body was more unwieldy than expected, and second, Shaw's hand light was drifting loose at his side. Normally he would have slung the light, which was tethered to him by a power cord, over his head and rested it on his shoulder, but that was not possible because of the helmet camera on his head. As a result, the light became twisted and tangled in his lines.

As he struggled to untangle the line, Shaw was "in trouble," said Shirley.

"He's in trouble now." Shirley said. "He's caught; he can't actually get away. He's finding it difficult to, to breathe… the breathing's too shallow."

Eventually the breathing slowly faded away.

Shaw's ashes were scattered at sunset on a hill not far from where he died. Just last month, Don Shirley and Ann Shaw returned to Bushman's Hole for a chance to remember and reflect. Shirley said he doesn't have any regrets.

"Dave died, and it's a great tragedy and I really miss him. But he died doing something that he loved doing."

And Shirley said that deep divers recognize the dangers they face on each an every dive.

"I never rule out the fact that nature is there, and it will take you if you step over the bounds."

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