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Raising the Dead -part 8

Here you can see what was going on the next few days after this dramaitc accident at Bushmans Hole which took another divers life while trying to recover a dead body from the bottom of the cave.
OVER THE NEXT FEW DAYS, as word spread of Shaw’s death, the Dreyers and most of the dive team went home. Andre Shirley arrived on Sunday, after driving all night from Badplaas, to take her husband for additional recompression treatments in Pretoria. But Herbst stayed at the hole, and he was in a grim mood. It had been left to him to retrieve all the lines and gas cylinders that still hung in Bushman’s depths, work he had started on Monday. By Wednesday, he was ready to go after the deepest cylinders, and he had called in his Afrikaner diving buddy Petrus Roux to help, with the police assisting at shallower depths. Standing at the water’s edge, the police team held an impromptu memorial service for Shaw. Police diving superintendent Ernst Strydom and Roux read from the Bible. Herbst hadn’t planned to say anything, but emotion gripped him, and a few words came.

“I’m going to miss you, mate,” he said, as if Shaw could hear. “It’s a good place. Rest here, stay here.” The group sang “Amazing Grace” as black clouds threatened rain. And then Herbst and Roux dived into the hole.

They dropped to 300 feet and attached lifting buoys to the shot line to raise the cylinders still at 500 feet to a more manageable depth. When they returned to the surface, they were approached by police diver Gert Nel, who had been helping to clear lines in the chimney. “Did you see them?” Nel asked quietly. “See what?” Herbst asked. “The bodies,” Nel said. “We saw Deon and Dave stuck in the cave at 20 meters.”

Herbst rested up and returned to the water. As soon as he cleared the narrow neck of the chimney, his cave light locked on to Shaw, floating eerily upright, his arms spread wide and the back of his head and shoulders jammed against the ceiling. Shaw’s light was hanging below. Looped around it was the cave line he had attached to Deon in October, and cradled almost perfectly in the line, its legs hanging down as if on a swing, was the headless body of Deon Dreyer. Herbst realized that Shaw’s light must’ve gotten tangled in the cave line. When Herbst and Roux had lifted the shot line with the buoys, it had pulled the cave line—and with it Deon and Shaw—off the bottom. As Shaw ascended, the gases in his body, as well as those in his suit, rebreather, and buoyancy wing, had started to expand. Up he had gone, dragging Deon with him.

Herbst brought Deon out first. The police team laid a white body bag along the water’s edge and lifted Deon into it. There was a surprising firmness under the wetsuit, and Strydom was shocked to get a whiff of rotting flesh. One of Deon’s flippered feet fell off. A policeman tossed it into the bag alongside the body, and the zipper was closed. Shaw had died doing it, but Deon’s body had finally been taken back from Bushman’s Hole.

Shaw was recovered next. It was a distressing job. His body was grotesquely swollen from the change of depth and pressure, and it was locked by rigor mortis in the free-fall position. Herbst, standing in the surface pool, had to cut Shaw out of his equipment. “That was quite bad,” he says, choking up.

Herbst cut the helmet cam free, too. Gordon Hiles, who had been filming the morning’s work, was relieved to see that the camera’s housing was still intact. Herbst was exhausted, with a pounding headache. He needed to call Don Shirley and Ann Shaw. But more than anything, he wanted to see what was on that video.

IT’S NOT AN EASY THING to watch a person die, especially if that person is a friend. Less than an hour after the helmet cam was removed from Shaw’s head, as Hiles made a copy of the video for the police at the top of the crater, Herbst watched the film of Shaw’s last dive. Later, he and Shirley (who calls it “a snuff tape”) examined it frame by frame, backward and forward, multiple times, to try and understand every nuance of Shaw’s death.

The picture is dark, and sometimes hard to see. But along with the sounds of Shaw’s breathing, picked up with perfect clarity by the camera in the stillness of the cave, the video tells the tale of Shaw’s final moments. When Shaw reaches the body of Deon Dreyer, he is 12 minutes and 22 seconds into the dive, and he’s been on the bottom for just over a minute. He pulls the body bag out and starts to try and work it over Deon’s legs. As he does, a cloud of silt obscures the picture. When it clears, Deon’s body, its head having fallen off, is floating in front of Shaw.

This was totally unexpected. Deon, as it turned out, was not completely skeletal, and he was no longer stuck in the silt. Instead of decomposing, his corpse had mummified into a soaplike composition that gave it mass and neutral buoyancy. And for some reason—no one has an explanation—the body had become unstuck from the mud as soon as Shaw started working on it. “The fact that the body was now loose, and not pinned to the ground, was not one of the scenarios that we had thought about,” Shirley sighs. “The body was not meant to be floating.” It’s a lot easier to slip a bag over an immobile body than a body floating and rolling in front of you at 886 feet.

Shaw starts fumbling and, for the first time, lets out an audible grunt of effort.

Herbst, listening intently through headphones, heard the steadily increasing distress in Shaw’s breathing and knew there was trouble coming. “Breathe slower, man, breathe slower,” he urged out loud. Watching the video with a clear head, it is hard not to wonder why Shaw didn’t just turn around right then and abandon the dive. In October, he had turned for the surface as soon as his breathing rate increased. Now he was panting, and Deon, who was attached to the cave line, was floating free. The body could have been pulled up. “All the options involved putting the bag on,” Shirley explains. “He’s sticking with his plan. Which is what you’ve got to do.” Still, when Shirley first saw the video, he couldn’t stop himself from pleading, “Leave it, leave it, leave the body now. It’s loose and can come up.”

Shaw, however, is responding only to the pounding of his narcosis and his determination to finish the job. He keeps working to control the body, letting go of his cave light so he can use both hands. Deon is rolling and turning in front of him, resisting Shaw’s efforts to get him into the bag. Shaw has been at it for two minutes, and the cave line is seemingly everywhere. It snags on his cave light, and Shaw pauses to clear it.

At this, Shirley and Herbst bridled. A cave diver should never let gear float loose. “It’s a recipe for disaster,” says Shirley, who will always regret not being present when Shaw told Hiles he would put the light to the side at times. “Do not do that,” he would have warned him.

Now Shaw is acting confused. He is working at the torso, instead of the feet. His movements have lost purpose. After more than two and a half minutes of work—and three minutes and 49 seconds on the bottom—Shaw pulls his shears out, fumbling to open them. The plan was for him to cut the dive tanks away as he rolled the bag over Deon. Shaw’s breathing rate continues to increase. Suddenly he loses his footing on the sloping bottom. He scrambles back to the body in a cloud of silt. The grunts of effort, hateful little bursts of sound, are painfully frequent.

Shirley and Herbst guess that Shaw’s narcosis was then closer to six or seven martinis. “You focus on the one thing. You don’t focus on the dive anymore,” Herbst says. “The one thing becomes everything. And I think with Dave it became the body, the body, the body.”

Still, Shaw keeps checking the time on his dive computer. After five and a half minutes on the bottom, he’s aware enough to know he has to leave, but he doesn’t get far. The video shows the bottom moving beneath him. Then Shaw’s forward progress stops. His errant cave light has apparently snagged the cave line tied to Deon’s tanks. Shaw knows he has caught something and turns awkwardly. His breathing starts to sound desperate. He pulls at the cat’s cradle of cave line, as if trying to sort it out. Every breath is now a sharp grunt. Shaw struggles to move forward again but is anchored by the weight of Deon’s body. The shears are still in his hand, but he never cuts anything. The pace of his breathing keeps accelerating, and there is a tragic, gasping quality to it, so painful to listen to that Herbst and Shirley will no longer watch the video with sound.

Twenty-one minutes into the dive, the sounds finally start to fade. Dave Shaw, with carbon dioxide suffusing his lungs, is starting to pass out. He is dying. It’s heartbreaking to watch. A minute later there is no movement.

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