Emergency crews fail to act as divers drown

April 24, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
The ABC7 I-Team has uncovered new evidence that emergency crews were frozen with indecision while two divers drowned in the California aqueduct last year.

Two months ago, we listed all the mistakes that lead to the deaths of two divers working for the state. But now, using the California Public Records Act, we've obtained recordings of telephone calls and surveillance video from that day that show exactly what went wrong.

The recordings of telephone calls into and out of the Dos Amigos pumping station capture all the emotions of the day. They begin with Tim Crawford, a diver for the State Department of Water Resources, who's about to check the trash racks in front of the pumping station with his partner, Martin Alvarado. Crawford calls a control room operator also named Tim.

Control Room: "Dos Amigos, this is Tim."

Diver: "Hey, Tim, this is Tim."

Control Room: "Hey, what's up?

Diver: "We're going to get in now."

Control Room: "Okay, cool."

Diver: "All right, we'll let you know when we get out."

Control Room: "All right, thanks, bye."

Those were some of Tim Crawford's last words.

Dos Amigos uses six massive pumps to send water up a steep hill so it can flow down the aqueduct to Southern California. However, managers failed to turn off one of the pumps (unit five) before the divers entered the water.

The dive tender, the man who was supposed to keep track of the divers and respond to an emergency, had no training and he had no experience as a diver. Those are all violations of state rules.

The I-Team obtained the dive tender's interview with state safety inspectors.

Dive Tender: "I proceeded right above them and I could see where they were with the bubbles that were coming up."

Records show the divers enter the water at 10:10 that morning. At 10:23, the dive tender watches their air bubbles sweep into pump five and disappear. A surveillance camera captures the tender pacing the deck above the divers for more than 20 minutes (10:45) before he finally calls the control room.

Control Room: "Allen."

Dive Tender: "Allen."

Control Room: "Yeah."

Dive Tender: "Hey, is Tim there?

Control Room: "Who?"

Dive Tender: "Tim."

Control Room: "Tim Crawford?"

Dive Tender: "No, Crawford's in the water."

At this point, the divers' air supply is running out. They're being held against the trash racks of unit five by the pump's powerful suction.

Dive Tender: "How long these guys stay down? You know?"

Control Room: "Uh-uh."

Dive Tender: "Cause he's been down for 30 minutes, nobody's come up yet."

Dive Tender: "You still there?"

Control Room: "Yah."

The divers are fighting for their lives and there's no emergency plan to help them.

Dive Tender: "I seen them come go by the unit that's on and I don't see the bubbles coming up anymore."

Control Room: "You got a rope tied on 'em or anything?"

Dive Tender: "No, they don't have rope on 'em."

The divers are only connected to each other by a three-foot orange tether. They have no way to communicate with the surface.

Dive Tender: "They went by unit five and I've lost their air bubbles for quite awhile now."

Control Room: "Oh, what do you want to do?"

Dive Tender: "How long do these guys usually stay down?"

Control Room: "I don't know, I've never tended 'em."

Dive Tender: "Neither have I. How long are those tanks good for, do you know?"

Control Room: "Uh-uh."

The dive tender tries banging a rake on the trash racks to signal the divers. The plant's safety manager, Bill Collins, was supposed to act as dive tender that day. He's an experienced diver. However, Collins begged off at the last minute and he was very difficult to reach once the divers got into trouble.

Bill Collins: "Hi, this is Bill in safety, hazmat and security, I'm unable to get to the phone."

The control room operator can't reach Collins at his desk or on his cell phone (10:50). It takes the safety manager half an hour to return the call (11:19), and Collins doesn't order the pump shut down. He says he'll be there soon.

The control room calls the operations center in Sacramento.

Control Room: "They've been down for over an hour now and they're not seeing any bubbles from 'em."

Sacramento Operations: "Oh, is that good?"

Control Room: "No, that's bad, they don't know where they're at."

An hour and a half after the divers enter the water, safety manager Bill Collins finally arrives on scene. The divers have passed away. Collins still doesn't order the pump shut down to free their bodies.

Manager: "Bill just arrived."

Control Room: "Did he?"

Manager: "Yup, you want to wait real quick or--?"

Control Room: "Well, does he want us to shut it down or what?"

Manager: "Here he comes right now, hold on, I'll call you right back."

Control Room: "Okay."

At 11:46, division chief Jim Thomas arrives. He finally orders the control room to shut down pump five and call 911.

We spoke with Thomas in February.

Dan Noyes: "Why not turn off that pump right away?"

Jim Thomas: "Well, that's a question, that was probably one of our procedures we weren't clear on."

The water flows back through the pumping station once the engine shuts down. It's now up to safety manager Collins to recover the bodies, but he can't find a basic part of his dive gear -- a weight belt. He paces the deck in his wetsuit.

It takes more than half an hour for a spare weight belt to arrive. Once he dives in, Collins quickly finds the bodies. They use an excavator to lift Crawford and Alvarado from the water.

The man who oversees operations for the state is hesitant to blame anyone for the slow emergency response, even the control room operator.

Dan Noyes: "What should he have done differently?"

Carl Torgersen (DWR Operations Chief): "Well, I'm not sure I can even answer that. I mean, there are..."

Dan Noyes: "How about stop the pump? How about reach up and hit that button?"

Carol Torgersen: "Well, there's even some question there."

Torgersen says once the pump shut off, that backflow of water may have injured the divers. He does admit his workers were complacent and suffered from a lack of training and a lack of experience dealing with divers.

But Torgersen says no one -- the workers, their supervisors or officials in Sacramento -- has been disciplined for the diver's deaths.

Carol Torgersen: "Well, no one per se was disciplined."

Dan Noyes: "Did anyone lose their job?"

Carol Torgersen: "No one lost their job."

Dan: "Suspended, letter in the file?"

Carol Torgersen: "No."

That control room operator had to perform one other job he wasn't prepared for -- delivering the news that the divers were gone.

Control Room: "Allen."

Manager: "You have any good news yet?"

Control Room: "Looks like they're both drowned."

Manager: "Oh."

Control Room: "They just pulled the last body out."

Control Room: "(Sigh) Like they went in front of that unit that was running."

Manager: "Oh, I see. I see."

You can hear the recordings of the most important telephone calls in our I-Team blog here.

Tim Crawford left behind a wife and a son. Martin Alvarado left behind a wife and seven kids. They are understandably upset at the slow response to this emergency. In our first report we heard from several family members. Click here to read and watch that report.

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