San Diego The buzz took longer than usual to reach me. A Navy seal named Keith Kimura was pulled unconscious from 60 feet of room-temp, gin-clear water on 10 January 1997 and died the next day at Sharp Memorial in Coronado. More than a month passed before I heard of a death in the Basic Underwater Demolition/seal (BUDS) training tower located on the Strand, a short mortar round south of the Del. You've probably passed the tower on your way to or from IB along Highway 75. Stands between the highway and the ocean. Looks like a giant, upright machine bolt: the cylindrical shaft is flooded with 60 feet of fresh water topped by a hex-head that contains a deck area where trainees - and instructors - enter and exit the shaft.
The tower, which has been in operation since the early 1970s, is used primarily for free-ascent training. To begin this exercise, trainees may either free dive to a container of compressed air called a diving bell, positioned midway down the tower, or enter the tower through a chamber at the bottom. The main purpose of free ascent is to practice reaching the surface after a simulated malfunction of scuba gear. Another purpose is to practice "lock-out, lock-in" procedures for leaving or returning to a submarine underway at a depth of 60 feet.
The key to surviving the exercise is to "blow and go," that is, the trainee must continually exhale compressed air from his lungs until he's on the surface. The compressed air must escape the body as the trainee ascends and water pressure lessens; if not, expanding air in the lungs will burst through the alveolar walls, leak into the pulmonary veins returning to the heart, be pumped into arteries, and block the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain. This fatal process is called "air embolism." According to the U.S. Navy Special Warfare Training Handbook, death from lack of oxygen in the brain occurs within five to seven minutes.
But I didn't need a manual to understand the often terminal terror of air embolism. In 1966 I made a free ascent of 120 feet after running out of air on a training dive at San Clemente Island. Quick, efficient work by SEAL instructors got me to a recompression chamber within five minutes after I surfaced vomiting blood, probably from ruptured lung tissue. Spent 36 hours in that chamber to dissolve bubbles in the blood. So I had more than the usual journalistic interest when I heard a trainee had died during free-ascent training in the tower.
On 14 February I got my first official confirmation of a death in the tower. Trish O'Connor, an assistant to the public affairs officer for Naval Special Warfare Command, said an accident had occurred on 10 January that resulted in a death the next day. Public Affairs had issued a press statement on 13 January. When I asked for a copy, O'Connor said it wasn't very detailed, and she could read it over the phone. "We are all deeply saddened by the death of Hospital Corpsman Second Class Keith M. Kimura. His tremendous devotion to duty and concern for all those around him, in particular the BUDS students under his care and instruction, were his hallmark traits. "We pray that his family and numerous friends will be given the peace and comfort they need during this most difficult time.
"An investigation into the circumstances which led to his death is ongoing." I'm used to terse Navy statements about circumstances surrounding SEAL deaths, but this was an all-timer. Still, the statement contained enough for me to realize an instructor had gone belly-up in the tower and not a trainee.
When I pressed O'Connor for more info, all she would add was that Kimura had died during free-ascent training. She wouldn't comment on anything else because "an investigation is ongoing."
"What about cause of death?" I asked. "I mean, he died more than a month ago. Surely a death certificate's been issued. Did he embolize?"
"I can't tell you anything more. You'll have to speak with [Public Affairs Officer] Lieutenant Commander Jim Fallon."
Thus began numerous phone calls back and forth between me and Fallon that failed to connect for several days. In the meantime, I rounded up my usual sources in the teams and a few I'd never talked to before.
Here's what I learned from more than two of these unofficial sources: that Kimura was an instructor assigned to assist in free-ascent training for BUDS class 210; that he was not wearing scuba gear or working from a bell with compressed air; that he didn't die from an embolism but drowned; that free-ascent training had yet to begin when someone - either another instructor or one of the trainees on the tower deck - noticed Kimura's motionless body, perhaps in a sitting position, 60 feet down on the bottom of the tower; that Kimura had entered the water to see how deep he could free dive and how long he could remain under (one source said Kimura may have announced to a group of instructors milling around on the deck, "I'm going to set a world record"); that between five and ten minutes passed before Kimura's body was spotted; that such impromptu breath-holding demonstrations have been going on unsupervised for years; that over time the tower, which started out as a "scary thing" to be respected, had become a "plaything" for some instructors.
My sources, many of them experienced SEALs, raised troubling questions. How, they wanted to know, could experienced instructors lose track of one of their own? How could anyone, instructor or trainee, be allowed to enter the water without supervision? And why the breath-holding exhibition in the first place?
I may know the answer to this last question based on what I learned during my 16 years as a SEAL. The ability to hold one's breath is a badge of honor in the teams. The champ when I came on board was a legendary instructor named Paul McNally. I recall how other trainees and I assembled our first week at the Amphib Base pool to watch in awe as McNally dived to the bottom and remained motionless in 12 feet of water for nearly five minutes. The lesson was clear: this is what a real frogman can do; this is what you worthless clumps should aspire to. Never mind that you won't have to hold your breath for more than a couple of minutes to complete a real mission; this is the mark of a man.
But unlike real missions, the ability to hold your breath could make or break you during training. Holding your breath to load obstacles with demolitions at unlikely depths of 30 feet or more has been an initiation rite, just as surely as "tacking" submarine dolphins, since the beginning of trainee time. Never mind that such deep obstacles couldn't possibly hazard landing craft that draw only a few feet of water. You load that deep-water obstacle and you are somebody!
Another breath-holding rite of passage is the so-called pool-competency drill (unofficially known as pool harassment). In 1991 the Government Accounting Office (gao), Congress's investigative agency, found this and other BUDS exercises "potentially dangerous.... During pool competency, instructors... knock off students' masks and fins, crimp or tie knots in their air hoses.... No safety diver is nearby to give air in an emergency.... Between July 28, 1989, and March 12, 1990, eight students experienced 'shallow water blackout'...unconsciousness due to lack of oxygen.... Diving medical authorities view this as dangerous because it can lead to air embolism or drowning." I called Ray Dittenhoffer, an authority on free diving, in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he owns and manages Craven Street Inn. Dittenhoffer has been a member and captain of the U.S. free-diving team, has taught spearfishing and free diving for years (including several courses in San Diego), and is a close friend of the world free-diving champion, Pepin Ferreras, who free dives to more than 400 feet.
"Breath-holding at any depth can be fatal," Dittenhoffer said, "because you can lose consciousness from lack of oxygen without any warning whatsoever. It's like running out of gas in a car with no warning indicator. I never practice breath-holding without supervision, even if it's in a swimming pool.
"And breath-holding at depth is doubly dangerous because the deeper you go, the more efficient your body becomes in delivering oxygen to vital organs like the brain. You feel great, you don't have the urge to breathe like on the surface, but your body is using up that 02. At some point, usually as you start to ascend, the light goes out, and you are well on your way to a permanent breath-hold. The cardinal rule is simply do not free dive to any depth without supervision."
After my interview with Ray I had a few intense conversations with Public Affairs Officer Fallon, but he told me little more than I'd learned from his assistant. He did say Kimura was from Thousand Oaks, was 25 when he died, had graduated from BUDS in 1992, and served a tour with Swimmer Delivery Vehicle Team Two before joining BUDS as an instructor in 1996. He said he'd try but didn't think he could find a photo of Kimura.
Fallon wouldn't comment on what my sources had told me. He urged me to wait a month or so until the investigation was completed. He did offer, as he put it, a "sound bite": "This command is absolutely committed to our people and to the safe conduct of all evolutions. Safety is paramount."
He added that he didn't believe his thin statement on 10 January about Kimura's death had kept anything from the public. "You don't think," he asked, "that the Navy should make a full press release every time a sailor dies, do you?"
I said I thought a death in a high-risk training exercise warranted more than condolences to family and friends, especially when BUDS had been severely criticized a few years ago by the gao for ignoring safety during such exercises. Fallon, who is not a SEAL, was unaware of this criticism.