Aberdeen PG 'Super Pond'

An aerial view supplied by the Army of Aberdeen Proving Ground's UNDEX Testing Facility, commonly known as the "Super Pond," where two divers died Tuesday, the Army said. Another diver died on Jan. 30. (U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command, Homestead Publishing / January 31, 2013)

The Navy divers knew it was a risky operation. The Aberdeen “super pond” was deep enough to hold a 14-story building. Its water was black and cold. And the bottom was a tangle of muck and debris.

An Army diver had died there a month earlier. And now, with some crucial equipment broken, James E. Reyher said Ryan Harris had to make the dive with scuba gear, and little margin for error.

Even for a quick “bounce” dive, scuba tanks would give them only about 11 minutes of air to go down 150 feet and get back up. It was only a training evaluation, but no Navy scuba dive had gone below 130 feet in years.

The two men were asked if they wanted to make the dive. They could say no. But they thought that might affect their standing and their coming deployment. So Reyher and Harris entered the frigid water that day last winter and began their descent.

On Monday, a court-martial was to begin for a Navy supervisor in connection with the deaths of Reyher, 28, and Harris, 23, on Feb. 26 in the man-made pond at the Army’s test center, in Aberdeen, Md.

The two divers, tethered to each other and to a surface line, apparently got caught on something below. By the time they could be hauled up by frantic comrades, they had run out of air and drowned, according to a Navy investigative report.

The incident unfolded in minutes, as colleagues on the surface realized the two might be stuck, then watched as the bubbles floating up increased dramatically and then stopped. Someone asked if this was part of the evaluation. It wasn’t.

“In hindsight the dive . . . should not have been undertaken,” Capt. Holiday Hanna, a Navy investigating officer, concluded. “The plan . . . did not allow the divers sufficient air or time in the event of unforeseen problems.”

But Navy divers are said to live by a “hooyah” code — a stubborn, can-do attitude in which nothing is deemed impossible.

“Navy divers can accomplish anything,” Cmdr. Michael Runkle, who headed the unit to which Reyher and Harris belonged, wrote in an essay 10 months before the accident.

“When handed a roll of duct tape and a snorkel and tasked to repair an aircraft and recover a downed plane, the Navy diver says ‘Hooyah’ and gets it done,” Runkle wrote. “Divers never say ‘can’t.’ ”

The defendant, Senior Chief Diver James C. Burger, who is charged with dereliction of duty, is accused of failing “to ensure established diving procedures and safety requirements were adhered to, as it was his duty to do so,” according to his charge sheet.

Burger denies the charge.

“This was a tragic accident, not a crime,” his lead defense counsel, Navy Lt. Cmdr. John F. Butler, wrote in an e-mail. “Senior Chief Burger steadfastly maintains his innocence and looks forward to clearing his good name.”

The court-martial of a second supervisor in the case is tentatively scheduled for next week, and several other senior divers who were at Aberdeen have received administrative punishments.

Military diving, by its nature, can be hazardous, and the smallest miscue can lead to disaster.

Reyher, a diver first class, from Caldwell, Ohio, and Harris, a diver second class, from Gladstone, Mo., were among five divers for the military who perished on duty over a 17-month period between January 2012 and last June.

One of them, former Marine George H. Lazzaro Jr., 41, was diving for the Army in the super pond when he died last Jan. 30.

“I’m losing air!” he yelled over a communication link. He surfaced too fast, passed out and sank to the bottom. It took rescue divers 21 / hours to find his body.

Two other Navy divers died during that period.