Coroner’s verdicts on tourist deaths

The Coroner’s Court recently considered the deaths of four tourists that were pulled from Grand Cayman’s waters dead between June 2006 and April 2007.

Rapid ascent

Nebraska retiree Daniel Childs, 71, died while diving near the blowhole in East End. Mr. Childs and his son, Frederick, had been 15 minutes into a group dive with a tour operator in April 2007 when he was noticed missing.

In a statement, the dive-master with Mr. Childs’ group said she had ordered the other divers to ascend to the surface once Mr. Childs was noticed missing. He was later found floating on the surface of the water. CPR was performed on Mr. Childs for an extended period, but he was later pronounced dead at the Cayman Islands Hospital.

In a statement, Frederick Childs said his father was a very good swimmer, an experienced diver, and in perfect health, but an autopsy found that Mr. Childs had severe narrowing of his coronary artery, an enlarged heart and was diabetic.

The doctor performing the autopsy said it appeared Mr. Childs had made an uncontrolled assent to the surface that could have been the result of panic – possibly related to his heart condition. A Department of Environment inspection found that the diving equipment Mr. Childs used was functioning properly at the time of his death.

Queen’s Coroner Margaret Ramsay-Hale pointed out there were a number of possible explanations for Mr. Childs’ rapid ascent, but told the jury they did not have to decide why he rose so suddenly. If they accepted that he drowned it could only be because of accident or a third party, with all the evidence pointing to the former, she said.

The jury ruled the death an accident, returning a verdict of death by misadventure.

Honeymoon tragedy

A verdict of death by misadventure was also returned in the case of Michael Kuntz, who was honeymooning in Cayman with his wife, Patricia Kuntz, in January, 2007. The Nebraskan couple had been married for nine months when Mr. Kuntz’s body was pulled from the water in front of Sunset House following a shore dive.

He had been out diving with a friend, James Paben, also from Nebraska. In a statement, Mr. Paben said both were certified divers and Mr. Kuntz had done about 30 dives. He said the two had gone about 200 to 300 yards from shore and dived to a depth of about 60 feet. After about half an hour, they had decided to go back, and Mr. Kuntz ascended to the surface first.

When Mr. Paben surfaced, Mr. Kuntz was about 40 feet away. While swimming towards shore, Mr. Paben noticed his friend was not keeping up. ‘At this stage I waved to our wives to get help,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t sure if Michael was having problems but I wanted to be on the safe side. Shortly after the dive instructor swam out to me. I pointed out to him the last place I saw Michael.’

In a statement, the instructor said he found Mr. Kuntz lying face down in the water. His face was blue, his eyes open and glazy and his mouth open with water in it. The instructor commenced rescue breathing and, when picked up by a boat a few minutes later, CPR, but Mr. Kuntz could not be revived.

A post mortem examination found foam drainage in Mr. Kuntz’s left ear – signalling he may have made a rapid ascent to the surface. It also found severe narrowing in one of the arteries leading to his heart.

Temporary Health Services Authority Pathologist, Jacqueline Torrell, who was in court to help explain the post mortem and autopsy report findings to the jury, was asked by the coroner whether it was possible Mr. Kuntz had a heart problem while underwater. ‘This evidence of heart disease could have caused a shortness of breath or some other episode, leading to panic,’ she replied.

The coroner pointed out that 30 dives over a period of years did not amount to a lot of diving experience, and that could explain why he surfaced so quickly. But she said it was not for the jury to decide why Mr. Kuntz rose so rapidly – they had to decide whether he drowned, and if he did, whether it was an accident – a view they accepted, returning a verdict of death by misadventure.

Smith Cove drowning

Jurors examining the death of Charles Simpson, 57, from Texas, heard Mr. Simpson had gone to Smith Cove Beach to dive with his wife and two other couples on 11 March, 2007.

His wife, Carol, said in a statement the couple had been the last into the water, with her about 10 yards behind Mr. Simpson.

After making it about 20 yards into the water, Mrs. Smith said she became uncomfortable with her gear and decided to return to shore.

Carl Simpson – a relative and friend of the deceased – was about 75 yards ahead at the time. He said Mr. Simpson – known as Chuck – continued to come towards the other divers initially, but then waved his hand at them to indicate he was returning to shore. Another member of the group said Mr. Simpson had only been about 30 yards into the water when he indicated he was turning back.

When she got back on shore, Mrs. Simpson looked for her husband but didn’t see him, so assumed he had caught up with the others.

When the group returned without him about 30 minutes later, Mrs. Simpson asked where her husband was. ‘They told me that he turned, said that he was going back to shore, but that they had not seen him since.’

Police later found Mr. Simpson’s lifeless body face down in the water. A post mortem examination listed drowning as the cause of death, but noted that Mr. Simpson was moderately obese, diabetic and had severe narrowing of his coronary artery. The jury returned a verdict of death by misadventure.

Snorkelling death at BT

The jury were also asked to consider the death of Thomas DeMarco, 49, from Georgia, who was found unconscious on Bodden Town Public Beach after snorkelling and later pronounced dead.

Mr. DeMarco went snorkelling with his son and wife on 20 June, 2006 by the reef in front of Turtle Nest Inn. In a statement, his wife, Martha, said she had stayed in shallow water and returned to shore first.

When son, Ben, returned to the shore alone, she asked where his father was. Ben said he didn’t know. She returned to their hotel room to see if Mr. DeMarco was there, but he wasn’t. Back on the beach, Mrs. DeMarco saw a group of people gathered, including two paramedics. ‘I looked and saw a body lying on the beach … I then knew it was him,’ she said. ‘I then saw them several times doing CPR and leaning the body to let the water out, but when I saw this, in my mind, I knew he was dead.’

The coroner pointed out that an autopsy had concluded the death was caused by drowning. It noted Mr. DeMarco had a history of high blood pressure and diabetes.

The report also noted there was narrowing in one of the arteries leading to Mr. DeMarco’s heart, but the coroner pointed out Mr. Demarco had no known history of heart problems.

She said it could have been that high blood pressure or a heart complaint caused Mr. DeMarco to panic, leading to his drowning. But she emphasised it was not for the jury to determine how the man drowned, but if he drowned and whether it was an accident. After a brief deliberation, the jury concluded it was, returning a verdict of death by misadventure.