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Charges weighed in diver deaths at APG

Two senior enlisted leaders with an elite Navy dive unit could face charges of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of two sailors at Aberdeen Proving Ground in February, and others could be charged, the Navy said Wednesday.

The chief warrant officer and the senior chief petty officer, whom officials did not name, also could face charges of dereliction of duty in the deaths of Diver 1st Class James Reyher and Diver 2nd Class Ryan Harris.

All were members of the elite Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2, which is based in Virginia Beach, Va., but has made frequent use of the UNDEX Test Facility at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Reyher, 28, of Caldwell, Ohio, and Harris, 23, of Gladstone, Mo., died Feb. 26 during a training exercise at the facility, known as the Super Pond.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore said last month that the men drowned; their deaths were ruled an accident.

Rear Adm. Mike Tillotson, commander of the Navy Expeditionary Combat Command, called for a preliminary hearing May 21 to determine whether the enlisted leaders will be court-martialed.

A spokeswoman for Tillotson said "other actions are under consideration" for other individuals. The spokeswoman, Lt. Cmdr. Charity Hardison, declined to name those individuals or their ranks, say how many there might be, or whether they could face similar charges.

Reyher and Harris were the second and third divers to die at the Super Pond in less than a month. George H. Lazzaro Jr., a 41-year-old former Marine working as a civilian engineering technician, died Jan. 30 while performing routine maintenance.

Officials have released few details but have stressed that the two incidents are unrelated.

"We unfortunately aren't able to give out a lot of details because it's tied up in the investigation," Hardison said.

The enlisted leaders, who are not the commanders of the unit, are scheduled to appear before an Article 32 hearing, a military proceeding analogous to a civilian grand jury. A military judge will preside and recommend a course of action to Tillotson.

Hardison stressed that the hearing is not a trial, but an investigative process. On receiving the recommendation, Tillotson could impose a nonjudicial or administrative sanction, refer the case to a court-martial or order it dropped.

Hardison said she could not release the names of the accused or identify their professional relationship with the divers.

"We don't want to put too much information out about them when the charges haven't been validated yet, so to speak," she said.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service continues to investigate, a spokesman said. The Navy Expeditionary Combat Command is conducting a separate safety investigation.

Officials said there had been no deaths or serious injuries at the Super Pond until this year. Col. Gordon A. Graham, commander of the Aberdeen Test Center, suspended operations at the facility after the deaths of Reyher and Harris.

The Super Pond was built in the 1990s to give the Navy a place to conduct underwater explosion tests that would not harm fish or other aquatic creatures.

The 1,000-foot-long, 150-foot-deep pond, carved out of the bank of the Bush River, can withstand the equivalent of 4,100 pounds of TNT. It has been used to shock-test ships, submarines, torpedoes, missiles and other systems. It has also been used for training exercises.

Messages left Wednesday evening seeking comment by officials at Aberdeen Proving Ground and the Aberdeen Test Center were not returned.

The Navy Expeditionary Combat Command and Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2 are based at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story in Virginia Beach.

The dive unit conducted salvage operations after the crashes of TWA Flight 800, Swiss Air Flight 111 and the space shuttles Challenger and Columbia; the collapse of the Interstate 35 West Mississippi River bridge in Minneapolis; and the discovery of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor.

Members recently recovered an Air Force F-16 fighter that crashed off the coast of Italy.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporter David Anderson contributed to this article.

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