The inquest into the death of an elderly snorkeler raised questions last week and even provided some possible answers when Queen’s Coroner Eileen Nervik and seven jurors heard evidence in the case of a cruise ship passenger who died after a self-booked excursion to Stingray City.
Jose Antonio Puron Lazcano was 77 when he came to Cayman with 13 family members aboard the cruise ship Liberty of the Sea on April 12, 2017.
The court heard that Mr. Lazcano had declined to use a life vest while snorkeling at a North Sound site known as Coral Garden. The first mate aboard the charter boat had advised him not to enter the water because of choppy conditions, but his daughter indicated he could swim and “it was OK.” None of the party wore a life vest.
Investigating officer Anthony Thomas of the police marine unit noted that boats are required to have a life vest for every person on board, but there was no rule about their use.
“When it comes to getting in the water to snorkel, there is nothing to say you have to put on a buoyancy device,” Mr. Thomas pointed out. Boat crew can advise, but they can’t force, he added.
The jury foreman asked whether it should be a requirement that life vests be worn, or should it be a requirement for persons over a certain age.
The coroner said she had noticed what seemed to be an increasing number of inquests for swimmers and snorkelers. She asked Mr. Thomas if he could give a rough estimate of how many incidents of this nature there had been in the past year. Mr. Thomas said there had been 10 or more in 2016 and “probably six or seven” in 2017.
Asked what percentage of incidents involved tourists, he said 97 – 98 percent.
She asked how many were between the ages of 60 and 80. Mr. Thomas said that 80 percent of the time, the incident involved someone 50 or over. There had been only a couple of people in their 40s.
He noted that tourists tended to come from “a more controlled environment” than the open sea and don’t realize how strong currents can be or the effect of wave action.
Another juror asked whether Mr. Thomas had noticed incidents happening in specific locations. He replied that the “hot spots” were locations typically visited by tourists.
Asked about signs, he said there were some areas with signs and warnings about currents, “but you may not see them till after the fact.” Mr. Thomas also commented that where there were signs, “people don’t pay attention.”
This led to suggestions that signs be made bigger, or put at a different angle, or be made three-sided.
A system of lifeguards was discussed, with questions as to where they would be stationed and the minimum distance apart they would need to be in order to be effective.
After the officer’s evidence, the coroner continued with the reading of witness statements and a review of the autopsy report presented earlier by government pathologist Shravana Jyoti.
“He was far from being healthy,” Mr. Jyoti told the court. “He was not fit to do snorkeling.”
Mr. Lazcano’s health issues included the fact that he had undergone open heart and two by-pass surgeries 20 years earlier; his left coronary artery was 90 percent blocked, which the pathologist described as “critical”; he was on medication for Parkinson’s disease and high blood pressure. The medical cause of death was acute myocardial infarction (a heart attack) while snorkeling in seawater.
A juror asked if Mr. Lazcano would have had a better chance of surviving a heart attack if he had not been swimming. Mr. Jyoti replied that when a person is doing a routine activity, the heart will not suffer much. Snorkeling required exertion and was not routine, he indicated.
Mr. Lazcano had been heading back to the boat when he stopped swimming. His son called for help. The first mate jumped into the water and with other persons’ help, Mr. Lazcano was raised onto the boat and given CPR. The boat headed back to shore and a police marine unit vessel came alongside and assisted with CPR and a defibrillator machine, which gave a reading of “No shock advised.” An ambulance carried Mr. Lazcano to the Cayman Islands Hospital, where he arrived around 3:15 p.m. He did not regain consciousness, but his blood was still circulating. He was placed on a ventilator and transferred to the Critical Care Unit, where he died at 2:30 a.m. on April 13.
After the jury deliberated and returned a verdict of misadventure, discussion continued another 20 minutes.
The corner said she had conducted inquests for more than six years and a lot of them were water-related deaths.
The Coroner’s Law allows her to make certain recommendations and she thanked jurors for their suggestions.
She was trying to see what Cayman could do as a community to mitigate what has been happening. But there was another component to all of this, she pointed out – the financial component.
Cruise ships come here for a day and passengers go on tours, she summarized.
“They come to enjoy our beautiful island and we don’t want to be unkind,” she said.
Tragedy happens and, along with the impact on persons involved, “it has financial consequences for us. It’s not the cruise ship or family that bears the financial burden of the autopsy, it’s government,” she explained.
“The Health Services Authority will invoice the Judicial Department for every single autopsy and other expenses. We struggle with that situation because it runs into thousands of dollars for just one autopsy and at the end of the year, it can be hundreds of thousands that we the people of the Cayman Islands are bearing financial responsibility for.”
She wondered if that responsibility should be shared in situations of illness or medical condition.
“At least there should be conversation about this,” she commented, referring to Cayman’s reputation, safety concerns and the financial consideration, which she described as substantial. She wondered what other jurisdictions were doing in these situations.
In years past, there had been a number of fatalities involving scuba divers, “but there hadn’t been many recently, the coroner observed. She added her impression that the dive operations had a good association. Now there needed to be something in place to deal with snorkelers, she suggested.
When a fatality occurs, especially involving someone coming in for one day on a cruise ship, “we’re stuck with the bill because it happens in our jurisdiction,” she concluded.