Coroner’s Jury: Scuba diver’s death was by misadventure

The February 2011 death of a visiting diver was ruled to be misadventure after a Coroner’s Jury heard details of the dive and results of an autopsy report. 

Florida resident Vickilee Hettenbaugh, 54, made a shore dive off West Bay with her husband Donn William Berg, on 8 February, 2011. 

Queen’s Coroner Eileen Nervik read statements and called witnesses to provide background to the incident. 

Steve Chenoweth, dive instructor who worked at Dive Tech, said the couple had their own gear, but rented tanks and weights. They had signed the requisite forms with their dive certification numbers and, from the way they assembled their equipment, he was confident they were experienced. 

Around 11.15am he heard a cry for help. He saw a male supporting a female on the surface of the water about 75 feet from shore. He grabbed a life ring and swam out, putting the ring under the woman’s head to keep it out of the water. Jay Esterbrook arrived and helped get her to shore. 

Meanwhile, Anton Swanepoel, who had come to dive on his day off, saw what was happening and called an ambulance. When the rescuers reached shore, he helped remove the stricken diver from the water. He and Nancy Esterbrook administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation until the emergency medical technicians arrived and took over. Ms Hettenbaugh was transported to George Town Hospital, where she was pronounced dead. 

Police officer Devon Bailey secured her equipment, had it photographed and took it to Scott Slaybaugh, deputy director for the Department of Environment. Mr. Slaybaugh reported that the dive equipment was in good working order and well-maintained. 

Mr. Berg told police he and his wife dived about 12 times per year and this was their third trip to Cayman. She had been diving since 2002, was a competent and cautious diver and he never saw her panic. 

He said they had decided to dive off a shelf about 300 yards from shore, to a depth of about 60 feet. She needed about six kilos of weight.  

On their return, he was ahead of her and when he looked back, she was swimming normally. When he looked back again, he did not see her. He was at 30 feet and when he looked up he saw her on the surface. He rapidly went to her and inflated his buoyancy control device. Her regulator was out of her mouth and her spare regulator was still clipped to her chest. 

Mr. Berg said he tried to give her “mouth to mouth” but couldn’t get her to breathe. He shouted for help and two people came to assist. 

He told police his wife was in good health. She did have occasional migraines and took half a sleeping tablet, but not while they were in Cayman. 

Richard L. Laube, who was staying at Plantation Village, told police he and a friend were doing some recreational diving with underwater scooters. They did not know Ms Hettenbaugh or Mr. Berg, but had a conversation with them before the dive. The couple went into the water about five minutes before he did. He and his buddy then went out to the wall and saw two divers coming down to 50 or 60 feet. “We waved to them and I think the male waved back to us,” he told police. “When we saw them in the water they looked fine.”  

Dr. Shravana Jyoti reported on the autopsy he conducted. External examination showed no evidence of violence, trauma or fracture. Tests for alcohol and recreational drugs were negative. 

He said he found multiple tears over the lobes of both lungs and multiple small areas of haemorrhage inside, along with frothy fluid. The combined weight of the lungs was 1,800 grams; the expected weight would have been around 850 grams. The multiple tears and haemorrhages were highly suggestive of acute pulmonary barotrauma, which is damage to the lungs from rapid or excessive pressure changes. The finding of frothy fluid in the trachea was highly suggestive of drowning. 

The physical cause of death was reported as acute pulmonary barotrauma and sea water drowning. Mr. Jyoti listed as a significant contributing factor “rapid ascent while scuba diving from a depth of 60-30 feet to the surface. Trigger unknown.” 

diver rescue

The scene at Lighthouse Point the afternoon that Vickilee Hettenbaugh drowned while diving. – Photo: File


  1. Sad story, very unfortunate. Commendations to the staff of Dive Tech — it sounds like they responded in a first-class manner and did everything they could. They are a top-notch dive operation, and it’s great to see that they performed at such a high level and were aware and on top of things in a bad situation. It’s unfortunate that the result was not better, but it’s still comforting to all the divers out there that the staff was quick to respond and do all the right things.

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