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Shannon Lewis - The True Story

Discussion in 'Cave Diving' started by Capt Jim Wyatt, Apr 1, 2015.

  1. Capt Jim Wyatt

    Capt Jim Wyatt Hanging at the 10 Foot Stop Staff Member

    # of Dives: 5,000 - ∞
    Location: Key Largo

    A ScubaBoard Staff Message...

    This thread began in the Accidents and Incidents forum. As the thread continued, some content emerged that is contrary to the special rules for that forum. As some of that discussion may be of interest to the cave diving community, moderators decided to move the entire thread to a forum where the special rules do not apply rather than delete those posts and disrupt the continuity of the discussion. Marg, SB Senior Moderator

    Over the past several years there has been a lot of discussion both in public and behind the scenes regarding my role in the tragic death of Shannon Lewis in June 2008. Much misinformation has been disseminated, some of it out of malice and some out of ignorance. I have endured most of it patiently, well as patiently as I can, but as the stories get wilder and wilder, I have decided to break my public silence. My intent with writing this is to set the record straight about what happened as best as I remember it and to perhaps quell some of the malicious gossip surrounding the incident. I don’t expect everyone to be able to accept the truth, but I need to do this in spite of them.

    The day of the accident I was training only one student, Dave, as a Basic cave diver. We had already made a couple of dives that morning and were just starting our lunch break when Shannon arrived. I did not know she was coming to North Florida that day and had not talked to her since she completed her Basic cave class in December 2007.

    It turned out that she had no one to dive with that day and asked me if she could dive with Dave and I. Our plan was for him to conduct a lost line drill and Shannon was happy to tag along and watch Dave do this drill.

    Shannon then went to rent a set of double tanks to dive with at a local dive shop. A while later after Dave and I had finished our lunch, Shannon came back ready to dive. We planned the dive as described above. It was decided for Dave to enter the ear first, Shannon second and I would be third. We were going to enter and exit the ear. We already had a line in from the morning dives and we agreed we should recheck it on the way in. The three of us conducted normal safety drills in the water, set our turn pressures and began the dive.

    We got to the bottom of the chimney in the ear and then proceeded another fifteen feet of lateral distance, which is about twenty-five feet from the grim reaper sign, nearest to the entrance. We were still in the cavern zone and could very clearly see daylight. At that point Shannon pointed to her right ear, and indicated a problem. We waited while she continued to clear, she flashed an OK sign and we continued into the cavern zone. She had only moved ten to fifteen feet more of lateral distance, which is about two to three feet deeper when once again she indicated her inability to clear her right ear.

    Subsequently, I thumbed the dive for her. I flashed my light at Dave and indicated to him she was having an ear issue. We all were still in the daylight zone. Dave and I escorted her back to the bottom of the chimney and watched her ascend to the deco log. We watched her sit on the deco log, exchanged OK signs and then she waved us off.

    It was my judgment at the time that she was OK and should be able to ascend the final 15 feet to the surface and without any problems.

    Sometime during our dive, snorkelers found Shannon in Devil’s Ear, brought her to the surface and revived her. She was transported to the hospital via helicopter while we were still in the cave. When my student and I surfaced we were immediately informed. I was absolutely shocked by the turn of events. I was also told that she was alive and responding to the people caring for her. She lived for about two weeks after the accident.

    There are no eye witnesses on record that dispute this version of events. There is some hearsay testimony from a few people that disputes this version. But they weren’t there and it’s my opinion that they have their own agendas, with the truth not being one of them. As with any incident in the Cave Community, there are any number of spinoffs, half-truths and outright deceptions about what happened that day. Here are some facts you should know. These facts are not disputed in the official records of the investigation.

    · Shannon was not my student at the time. She asked us to go with us as a "tag-a-long" diver, which was a fairly common practice.
    · I did not have Shannon sign a waiver nor did I ask her to sign a medical form since she only was a tag-a-long diver, diving for fun.
    · Shannon did not enter the cave zone as she was unable to clear her ears.
    · Unbeknownst to me, Shannon was suffering from bi-lateral inner ear infections and should not have been diving that day.
    · Prescription medications were found inside her car by the deputy who stated he would call the hospital and inform them.
    · Shannon was certified as a Basic Cave Diver 6 months prior to the accident and had been cave diving in Mexico prior to the accident.
    · Brett Gilliam did not interview either me or my student Dave Flick.
    · Brett Gilliam confided to John Adsit that he has since realized his analysis is not an accurate account of the event.
    · There was no judgment against me and the case was settled out of court.
    · The case was dismissed with prejudice. This only means that the lawsuit can never be filed again.

    There are many myths and lies concerning this incident. Some people claim that Shannon was a student of mine at the time, when she was not. Those very same people who weren’t even there often contend that she entered the cave with us, when she had not. It’s also been said that we abandoned her in the cave or in a hole way back in the cave, which of course is ludicrous. There’s a rumor that her computer shows a different story, but she wasn’t even using one that day as her computer was broken.

    I have even heard that we were supposed to be conducting a traverse between the Eye and Ear which is also false. These and other misleading stories about the event serve no purpose but to inflame passions, cause needless drama and impugn my reputation within the cave community. It is this kind of malicious gossip that we have come to refer to as “Cave Politics”. You can be sure that they are only repeated to cause me harm. The willingness to believe and spread such lies without independent inquiry astounds me as it should you.

    Make no doubt about it, I have learned from this experience. It has caused me to do things a bit differently.
    · I now ask divers diving with me to sign a waiver and to complete a medical form.
    · I now escort divers completely back to the surface and watch them get out of the water.
    · It is rare that I allow tag-along divers in a class with me any more.

    Has this affected my life? Indeed, and more than I would like it to or think it should have. However, I am not the victim here. Shannon is no longer alive and that’s the real tragedy. No dive is worth endangering your life over. You should never dive if you are sick.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 9, 2015
  2. dumpsterDiver

    dumpsterDiver Banned

    # of Dives: 2,500 - 4,999
    WOW, interesting post. I've waived goodbye and sent people to the surface alone many, many times.

    Why not have you student "sign off" so as to provide confirmation that your story is factual. The story is so short and simple, it sounds like it would be easy to verify.. or dispute.
  3. Capt Jim Wyatt

    Capt Jim Wyatt Hanging at the 10 Foot Stop Staff Member

    # of Dives: 5,000 - ∞
    Location: Key Largo
    He verified it under oath in his deposition.
    Chugwhump likes this.
  4. Doppler

    Doppler Dive Equipment Manufacturer

    Thanks for posting, Jim. As I said to you at the time, Shannon's death was both a mystery and a tragedy, and I never understood what criteria were applied to deem you culpable.

    When Joe Steffen died in the Bell Island Mine, he was within 50 or 60 lineal feet of the surface when he waved off his dive buddy, Mike Fowler, to continue laying line... **** my friend happens and 20-20 hindsight and armchair quarterbacking does bugger all to change that.
  5. TSandM

    TSandM Missed and loved by many. Rest in Peace

    What an awful thing to have happened, Jim. I'm sure it has haunted you for seven years. This sport can be scary, because you can make decisions that seem perfectly reasonable (and ARE) and bad things can happen.

    This story is just going to make me more of a PITA than I already am, about buddy teams staying together.
    Capt Jim Wyatt and mjsylver like this.
  6. boulderjohn

    boulderjohn Technical Instructor ScubaBoard Supporter

    # of Dives: 1,000 - 2,499
    Location: Boulder, CO
    Here is an explanation of this.

    Brett Gilliam was hired by the plaintiffs, and on their behalf filed an expert opinion that was never challenged in court because the case was settled early. I interviewed him twice for an independent report I was writing on behalf of another organization, for a total of (going from memory) 5-6 hours. In the first interview, he described the details leading to his report at great length. He told me, for example, that Shannon Lewis was found entangled in branches well within the cave itself. I did not challenge anything he said--I just let him talk. I then sent him an email prior to the second interview. In that email, I listed all the things he said that appeared to be at odds with the facts in the case, and I told him I would call about those points.

    When I called, he admitted that some of the things he said appeared to be inaccurate. He said that the only information he had for writing his report had been given to him by the plaintiff's attorney. He was incredulous that the story was going on. It was an accident, he said. People should learn from it (accompany exiting divers to the shore) and move on.

    After that, a very preliminary draft of my investigation was unfortunately leaked. After that, someone called Gilliam and asked if his initial report and conversation with me had been as inaccurate as my preliminary draft indicated. Gilliam depends upon his reputation as an expert witness for the bulk of his income. What do you think he said?
    RJP and Capt Jim Wyatt like this.
  7. dumpsterDiver

    dumpsterDiver Banned

    # of Dives: 2,500 - 4,999
    Wes Skiles died doing a solo ascent in open water from 65 - 70 ft depth. He was using a rebreather, but still, his death should also be remembered as the culmination of an attempt to ascend alone.
  8. clownfishsydney

    clownfishsydney Loggerhead Turtle

    # of Dives: 2,500 - 4,999
    Location: Sydney Australia
    Thanks for this report. As someone very interested in why accidents happen, I am always glad when people share the details of any accident they are involved in. I have always published as soon as possible the full story of what happened when I have witnessed or being involved in an incident/accident . It helps everyone understand what went on and also lets the family know what happened, let alone helping other divers avoid the same mistake (if this is what happened).

    I encourage people actually involved in accidents to share quickly their knowledge of what happened so that false stories do not get around. I have seen so many rubbish stories circulate after accidents. I have also seen others die because people pretended that near fatal accidents (mostly with rebreathers) did not happen and they did not share the reasons for this with the rest of the dive community.
  9. bowlofpetunias

    bowlofpetunias Oh no, not again! Staff Member

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: Sydney Australia
    IMHO there is a time and place for making information public. Two law suits have already been mentioned in this thread alone. Putting out too much information too soon may put innocent people at risk. I am not a fan of providing the fuel and tinder to set your own funeral pyre alight.

    After legal judgments are made seems the smartest time to divulge information. Often then it is too late and most people want to let sleeping dogs alone. When someone keeps throwing mud, fouling the waters as in this case it seems sensible to try to clear your name.

    Unfortunately as Jim and John have indicated, those with less than honourable motivation will try to block it. Those who have chosen their reality are often very good at ignoring FACTS that do not support their chosen reality.

    Fortunately there are people out there who will listen to facts and not be blinded by people with questionable motives. I hope this thread will help clear up the misinformation and help sanity prevail.
  10. uncfnp

    uncfnp Solo Diver

    # of Dives: 500 - 999
    Location: North Carolina

    I appreciate your forthrightness and willingness to share your experience. And hope that in some small way this may help you deal with the emotionally traumatic events of that day and since.


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