Jurors query snorkeler’s death

Jurors questioned the captain and staff member of Frank’s Watersports before returning a verdict of death by misadventure for an excursion customer who drowned in December 2006.

Queen’s Coroner Grace Donalds conducted the inquest on 26 November into the death of Lois Aline Gales, 55, of Louisiana, USA. Mrs. Gales came to Cayman with family members aboard the cruiseship Carnival Valor.

Statements made

The coroner first noted that Mrs. Kate Ebanks, wife of Frank Ebanks who owns Frank’s Watersports, and Olabee Willis Ebanks, who captained the boat the snorkelers went out on, had made written statements shortly after the incident. Taking them separately, she asked if they adopted their statement. They did, so she read the statement of each, explained that information could be added and then the jurors could ask questions.

There was no statement from the third employee aboard, described as the tour guide.

Mrs. Ebanks’ statement said she had worked for her husband’s company 15 years. Her duty was to meet guests at the seaport and transport them to the snorkelling site named Fisherman’s Rock Reef, located at the northern head of Barkers.

She picked up 14 passengers from the Carnival Valor and took them to the marina at Safehaven, where 22 others were waiting. The total was 36 for the trip aboard the vessel Deep Quest.

Mrs. Ebanks said she gave a safety briefing over the microphone, including layout of the boat, bathroom and refreshments. She, Olabee and the tour guide, referred to as Clive, outfitted passengers with equipment. Experienced snorkelers got snorkel vests; those not experienced got life jackets. The entire briefing took about 25 minutes on the way out.

On arrival at the site, Clive and Captain Olabee got in the water with the guests. She remained on deck. About 15 minutes later it started to rain and she noticed the current picking up.

Passengers who had not gone where they were told were being pulled by the current. She noticed one female farther away than others. She called to the tour guide to go and bring her back. She threw a life ring and vest to Clive and he proceeded to go and being her back. She shouted for other snorkelers to return. Clive and two others got to the female but they were having difficulty getting her back.

Captain Olabee proceeded to start the drive over to pick up the female in distress but he could not get the boat started. He kept trying but it would not start. She got on the VHF radio, emergency channel 16, asking help from any boat in the vicinity. She also called 911.

The captain then went into the engine room and got the engine to turn over. ‘But when he shouted at me to turn the ignition, I realised one family member had interfered with the ignition and broke the key off.’

Eventually Clive and two guests brought the female to the boat and two passengers started CPR. The marine police came and the female was transferred to that boat.

In response to questions from jurors, Mrs. Ebanks said she didn’t know for sure if Mrs. Gales was experienced; she had both snorkel jacket and life vest.

Asked if she recommended the buddy system, she said not all the time – ‘We just tell them to stay with the guides’ one of whom is ahead of the guests and one behind. There are also life rings tied onto the boat, each with about 100 feet of rope. During the briefing guests are told at no time should they cross the end of the life ring.

The jury foreman asked her to summarise the briefing and she did so. ‘We mention if they are not very good swimmers they should let one of the guides know so they can especially look out for them and stay close to them.’

Asked about the water depth at Fisherman’s Rock, she said when passengers got off the boat the water was probably 10-12 feet and shallower further away. There was no wave action or current. Other boats were out that day. In fact, when she called for help, several boats responded, but said they had people in the water so they could not come to assist.

No whistle

Mrs. Ebanks said she did not hear Mrs. Gales blow the emergency whistle on the vest; if it had been blown, Mrs. Ebanks would have heard it. The whistles can function with water in them.

Asked if there is a legal ratio for guides to guests, she replied ‘Not to my knowledge.’

The coroner then read Captain Olabee’s statement. He said he had 23 years experience, was a good swimmer, did not have professional training as a lifeguard but knew how to save lives in the water.

He summarised the morning trip on the Deep Quest, after which he switched off the boat so it could cool down and he could check the engine oil, alternator belt, battery. Everything was in good condition.

For the afternoon trip there were 33 customers. He had enough life jackets for everyone.

He said his destination was Barkers Cay. The wind was the same as it had been in the morning and he saw no danger. After all 33 customers had their equipment he saw them all get into the water. He then entered the water with the tour guide. Kate stayed onboard as lookout.

After the period of heavy rain, Kate called out that someone was drifting. He had to get in the boat to see where she was pointing because there were some two-foot chop waves. He saw two customers about 80-100 feet away.

Broken key

He went to start the boat, but saw the key was broken off, so he swam out to the two female customers and gave one an extra life jacket to put under the head of the other. Captain Olabee said he put his left arm through the woman’s right arm and started swimming. He got to the life ring and was pulled to the boat with the women. When he got on board he saw two females doing CPR. He was exhausted and could not do any more.

Jurors asked Captain Olabee about the broken key. He said he when he first swam back to the boat he found it broken. He said one of the guests had broken it off. He didn’t try to start the boat because it didn’t make sense; he jumped in the water and went to the women.

Asked about the tour guide, Captain Olabee said ‘He was there, but I took the chance to go because I know I’m a hard swimmer.’ He agreed he was doing two jobs – captain and guide.

The coroner read statements from nine passengers, seven of whom were related to or acquaintances of Mrs. Gale. Their statements referred to different aspects of the incident.

Alix Martin, 17 at the time, said he went and assisted Mrs. Gale. At one stage a male came out to assist, but went back. Someone came with a rope and got them to the boat.

Mrs. Marian Daniel said she and her daughter assisted with CPR for about 30 minutes, but got no response.

Mrs. Paulette Smith said she had attended an excursion safety seminar on the cruise ship, which emphasised how important it was to schedule excursions through Carnival Cruise Lines for health and safety reasons.

Panicked

Miss Paulette acknowledged that she panicked in the water after the rain and both of Mrs. Gales’ daughters helped her.

Back on board, she saw a man with a wrench open the engine compartment. Two of her group jumped into the water to go to Mrs. Gale. Kate said the battery was dead and there was no back-up. Everyone who had a cell phone was calling for help saying they were at Fisherman’s Rock.

Finally another boat pulled alongside and a man said ‘We would have got to you sooner if you were where you said. This is not Fisherman’s Rock.’

Mrs. Gales’ daughter, Fitima Smith, said after the rain stopped someone told her her mother was ‘out there’. She swam to her mother, who was face down, her life jacket still on. The captain came out and assisted her and she told him he needed to get the boat. He never told her it was disabled.

Mrs. Gale’s other daughter, Henri Rowe, said when she saw her mother and sister about 100 feet out, she kept telling the crew to start the boat, then asked, ‘Do you need me to start the boat? I’ll do it myself.’

She said Alix and one male staff member went in the water to help her mom and sister.

Marine Parks Enforcement Officer Andrew Hope said he was on mobile patrol when he became aware there was an unconscious woman aboard a broken down boat with rough sea conditions.

He realised the marine vessel would have difficulty taking the woman aboard, so he went to the Morgan’s Harbour and instructed the Parchment Brothers to take him to the scene aboard their vessel Peace Maker. They agreed without hesitation. When they got to Barkers Cay, they took the woman aboard and carried her back to Morgan’s Harbour, where an ambulance staff was waiting to take her to hospital.

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