Navy Charges 4 in 2 Diving Deaths


The U.S. Navy has charged four senior leaders of an elite diving unit with dereliction of duty in the deaths of two Navy divers who perished during a training exercise at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

Arraigned Wednesday (Oct. 9) were four members of Mobile Salvage and Diving Unit 2, based in Virginia Beach, VA, and part of the Navy's Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group (EODGRU) 2. The defendants were identified as:

  • Chief Warrant Officer 3rd Class Jason M. Bennett;
  • Senior Chief Navy Diver James C. Burger,
  • Senior Chief Navy Diver David C. Jones; and
  • Chief Navy Diver Gary G. Ladd Jr.
Bennett, the dive master in the incident, faces two counts of dereliction of duty; the other sailors, one count each. Each of the defendants has more than a decade of experience as Navy divers.
Commander Removed
The charges relate to the deaths Feb. 26 of Diver 1st Class James Reyher, 28, and Diver 2nd Class Ryan Harris, 23. Reyher and Harris, both experienced Navy divers, died during training at Aberdeen's Underwater Explosive Test Facility (UNDEX), a massive tank known as the Super Pond.
On May 1, the Navy announced that it had opened a Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) Article 32 (court martial) investigation into the two deaths. On May 9, it announced the removal of Cmdr. Michael Runkle as commanding officer of the diving unit, citing "safety concerns," "command climate weaknesses," and "morale issues."
3rd Diver Dies

The deaths of Reyher and Harris came three weeks after another diving accident at the Super Pond claimed the life of George H. Lazzaro Jr., 41, a engineering technician and former Marine. Lazzaro was performing routine maintenance in the 150-foot-deep, blast-resistant Super Pond when he drowned.

Aberdeen Proving Ground
U.S. Army

The Underwater Explosive Test Facility (UNDEX), used mostly by the Navy, is located at the Army's Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland.

The Army, which operates Aberdeen, and Navy have both been investigating the deaths. Most of the operations at the pond are Navy related.
Indeed, after Lazzaro's death, Aberdeen Test Center Commander Col. Gordon Graham ordered all civilian dives at the Super Pond halted. But Reyher's and Harris's dive went ahead at the Navy's request, and the Navy was responsible for the operation, authorities said.
OSHA Violations
In August, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration notified the Army of 11 violations in Lazzaro's death. OSHA's investigation into the deaths of Reyher and Harris is continuing.

In Lazzaro's case, OSHA accused the Army of improper training of divers, inadequate supervision on the dive, lack of a standby diver, lack of a reserve breathing air supply, and other violations.

The Army did not contest the violations, the Marine Corps Times reported later in August. Graham told the news outlet that the center would incorporate OSHA's finding and other recommendations into its plans and procedures.

'Everything That Could Possibly Go Wrong'

The four Navy defendants are accused of negligently failing to ensure that sailors under their command followed proper diving procedures and safety requirements in February's training exercise.

"Everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong for us," Petty Officer 1st Class Fernando Almazan, the dive supervisor, testified at a military hearing in June, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Aberdeen diver in Super Pond
U.S. Army

The 150-foot-deep training tank known as the Super Pond has been closed since the deaths of two Navy divers (not pictured) in February.

Hearing witnesses said that the sailors' underwater breathing units had failed, forcing them to change equipment. A standby diver who was sent to check on the pair ran out of breath when his scuba regulator froze, and two rescue divers were forced to return to the surface when one became disoriented.

Also at issue is whether Reyher and Harris should have been allowed to dive to 150 feet, deeper than a normal training dive of 130 feet.

Courts-martial for the four accused sailors are expected to be held in November or December, Lt. Nathan Potter, spokesman for Explosive Ordnance Group 2, told Navy Times.

A fifth sailor, Chief Warrant Officer 3rd Class Mark Smith, who supervised the dive, has accepted administrative and disciplinary action and was not charged.



Tagged categories: Accidents; Fatalities; Health & Safety; OSHA; Tanks and vessels; U.S. Army; U.S. Navy

Join the Conversation:

Sign in to our community to add your comments.