By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun
8:10 PM EDT, October 9, 2013
After months of investigation, military authorities charged four sailors Wednesday in the deaths of two Navy divers at the "Super Pond" at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
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. were charged with dereliction of duty in the deaths of Diver 1st Class James Reyher, 29, and Diver 2nd Class Ryan Harris, 22.
The divers and the defendants were members of the elite Mobile Salvage and Diving Unit 2, based in Virginia Beach, Va.
The charges were the first to be brought in the deaths of Reyher and Harris. The names of the defendants were made public for the first time during their arraignments Wednesday at Naval Station Norfolk, Va.
No further charges or defendants are expected, a Navy spokesman said.
The charges came after the four sailors declined administrative discipline. They face trial at separate special courts-martial, expected in January.
A fifth sailor opted for administrative action and does not face court-martial.
Reyher and Harris died Feb. 26 during training at the Underwater Explosive Test Facility, known as the Super Pond, at the proving ground.
Members of the elite diving unit told a hearing officer in June that the two died after their underwater breathing units failed and a line that tethered them to the surface became tangled.
On Wednesday, Bennett was charged with two counts of dereliction of duty. He is accused of failing to ensure that the unit adhered to established diving procedures and safety standards, and of failing to inform the commanding officer of a request to deviate from approved training and conduct a scuba dive that exceeded normal working limits.
Burger, Jones and Ladd each face a single count of dereliction. They are accused of failing to ensure that the unit adhered to established diving procedures and safety standards.
Cmdr. Michael Runkle, the commanding officer of Mobile Salvage and Diving Unit 2, was relieved of his duties in May. The Navy cited a "loss of confidence in his ability to command."
The Super Pond is a 150-foot-deep tank carved from the bank of the Bush River in the 1990s to give the military, private contractors and academics a place to test missiles, torpedoes, sonar and the effects of explosions on submarines and boats.
Navy divers also use it to practice salvage missions in a controlled environment.
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 former Marine working as a civilian engineering technician in the Firepower Directorate of the Aberdeen Test Center, died Jan. 30 while performing routine maintenance.
After Lazzaro's death, the federal government's workplace safety agency reported serious violations of commercial diving safety standards.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said the Aberdeen Test Center failed to leave a qualified person above the water to manage the dive, conducted the dive without a standby diver and kept no reserve breathing air supply, among other violations.
OSHA is not investigating the deaths of Reyher and Harris because its jurisdiction does not extend to active-duty military personnel.
Until Lazzaro's death, Army officials said, there had been no injuries reported at the Super Pond. The facility has been closed since the deaths of Reyher and Harris.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun