When A Diver’s Oxygen Cut Off 300 Feet Underwater, His Crew Launched A Desperate Bid To Save Him

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Chris Lemons and the rest of the crew aboard the Bibby Topaz had a simple mission. At least, it should have been simple for a team of such experienced divers. Their vessel was to plunge deep into the North Sea, following which Lemons, Dave Yuasa and Duncan Allcock would step into an even smaller diving bell to take them further down beneath the waves.

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And after the team had dived 300 feet down from the bell, Lemons and Yuasa then began repair work on a damaged pipe while Allcock manned their vessel. Yet while the start of the men’s mission had gone off without a hitch, it wouldn’t stay that way for much longer. Alarm bells started blaring, alerting the crew overhead that the Bibby Topaz’s navigation system had malfunctioned.

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All of a sudden, the Bibby Topaz started drifting through the North Sea, dragging the diving bell with it. For Lemons and Yuasa, this posed a life-threatening problem: their oxygen cords connected to the smaller vessel that had begun to move without warning. And even through the water, Yuasa could hear as Lemons’ life-support cable – surrounded in metal – snapped under the pressure.

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Aboard the diving bell, Allcock pulled on Lemons’ oxygen supply cord until the ragged ends rose through the bottom of the vessel. With that, he knew that he had to embark on a rescue mission – albeit one that may be in vain. Lemons had a five-minute supply of emergency oxygen and the journey to him would take half an hour, you see. Even so, Allcock had to try.

Image: Facebook/Morag Martin

It’s fair to say, however, that Lemons’ life on land was calmer in comparison to his time at work. In Scotland, he and his fiancée, Morag Martin, had begun to build their first home. They’d then marry in April 2012 once the groom had returned from a deep sea diver shift on the North Sea.

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Lemons’ work would have him and his crewmates diving hundreds of feet into the North Sea, where they’d repair oil rigs submerged underwater. And, obviously, this type of task doesn’t make for a traditional day job. In April 2019 dive supervisor Craig Frederick told The Independent that he and his fellow divers spend four to five months a year on the sea and the rest on land.

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Each job requires the diving crew of six to spend weeks aboard their diving support vessel – a very small chamber that allows them to plunge deep into the water. Frederick has explained of the contraptions, “I don’t think you could legally put six dogs in one of these tanks. Look at the rules for a kennel, and I bet you couldn’t put six dogs in them.”

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But the compact diving vessel ensures the safety of crew members as they descend into the sea. Once everyone is situated on board, those on board seal the entry hatch and start on a routine called blowdown, which helps their bodies adjust to the compressed air that they’ll breathe as they reach the bottom of the sea.

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Through this process, the divers’ bodies gradually become used to the amount of pressure that they’ll feel once they’re outside of the vessel and working underwater. So the further down they have to go, the longer they spend in the blowdown stage with the compressed oxygen flowing through their bodies.

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According to Frederick, this and other practices make the North Sea diving industry the “gold standard for safety.” Still, every underwater project comes with risk. “There’s always speed bumps in the road [that] are going to trip you up – whether it’s the weather, the visibility or the tidal conditions,” the dive supervisor described.

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In the case of Lemons’ harrowing North Sea dive, his crew contained Frederick as well as Yuasa and Allcock. Lemons and the latter two men would leave their diving support vessel, the Bibby Topaz, and descend even further down into the water in a diving bell. And from there, Lemons and Yuasa would fix pipes on the seabed – 300 feet away from the extra-small vessel that took them downward.

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Still, nothing seemed out of the ordinary on September 18, 2012, as the team got to work 115 miles off the shore of Peterhead, Scotland. Indeed, Frederick later remarked that the conditions – while windy – proved to be “pretty standard” for that time of year. He added that the choppy waters were “not even at the outside limit [for diving],” continuing, “There was no question of us stopping because of the weather.”

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So Lemons, Yuasa and Allcock left the Bibby Topaz and traveled down in the diving bell. Allcock would remain on board the ship, sending the divers’ so-called “umbilical cords.” These lines brought oxygen as well as light, a line of communication and warmth beneath the water’s surface, and each of these resources would be vital in completing the six-hour task ahead of them.

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With everything in place and both divers ready to go, Yuasa and Lemons departed from the bell – each one attached to their 164-foot umbilical cords. They had plenty of slack, too as they entered the oil-drilling structure that needed repair. Frederick later told The Independent, “[Yuasa and Lemons] were going to remove some pipework and replace it with another type of pipework.”

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But the job, which Frederick also described as the divers’ “bread and butter,” went wrong within an hour of Lemons’ and Yuasa’s departure. Overhead in the Bibby Topaz, an amber-colored warning light glowed. The vessel’s dynamic positioning system, which should have kept the ship from drifting away from the job’s location, had failed.

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As such, the Bibby Topaz then began to float off from its intended destination, bringing the diving bell along with it. And quickly, the amber alert escalated to red – apparently signaling an “unprecedented catastrophic failure.” Consequently, Frederick called down to the underwater team, frantically begging the divers to return to the bell.

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Lemons obeyed orders, following his umbilical so that he could return to its base on the diving bell. As he pulled himself out of the oil-drilling structure, though, he realized that he had another huge problem: his support cord had become stuck on something. As a result, then, he called in to Allcock, asking him to give a bit more slack on the line.

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But Allcock couldn’t do anything as the drifting Bibby Topaz pulled the diving bell and stretched its umbilicals to the brink. “It was so tight. There was no way I could even get my fingers in to pull [more umbilical] off, let alone pull it over the top of the horns where it’s wrapped,” he would describe to The Independent.

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The umbilical cord “was literally pulling the rack, which is like four-inch stainless-steel bars, off the wall. For a moment I thought it was going to pull me out of the hole to them,” Allcock went on. So, he had to think quickly to prevent such a catatrophe from happening. “I literally jumped on the chair at the opposite side of the bell and pinned myself to the roof – like Spider-Man – just trying to get out of the way,” Allcock added.

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Underwater, Yuasa also tried his hardest to help Lemons, but his umbilical cord didn’t have enough slack to bring him close enough to his diving partner. Therefore, all Yuasa could do was look on as Lemons’ cord got thinner and thinner – a phenomenon that The Independent quoted him as saying he had “never seen before.”

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Then Yuasa heard it: the loud bang of Lemons’s “armor-plated” umbilical cord snapping underwater. After that, he said, he heard “quite a lot of tearing, which would have been the other [cables] parting one by one.” At the same time, the Bibby Topaz lost function in all of its screens, as the broken umbilicals shorted the diving bell’s energy supply.

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Fortunately, from the Bibby Topaz, Frederick could still call down to Allcock on the diving bell thanks to a sound-powered phone that he had on deck. The dive supervisor therefore advised Allcock to pull on Lemons’ cord to see what came back with it. If the diver’s helmet remained attached to the umbilical, then he’d have a serious problem.

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Frederick recalled, “I wanted to see that [the cord] was severed rather than it [pulling] off his harness and [us ending] up with his hat. As long as [Lemons] had his diving helmet, then he had a good chance of surviving.” And once Allcock pulled on the cables, he eventually got to the end where they had snapped. Lemons still had his helmet, fortunately.

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But the helmet wouldn’t be enough to sustain Lemons’ life for long. Frederick estimated that the diver had about a ten-minute supply of emergency oxygen, and time had started ticking as soon as the cable snapped. Aboard the Bibby Topaz, he and the rest of the team tried to regain control of their navigation so that they both could stop moving and also halt the diving bell’s drift.

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All the while, Yuasa drifted in the water as the diving bell pulled his cable. He mustered up the strength to pull himself back to the vessel by the umbilical, but his safety only let his mind wander: what would it feel like for Lemons, abandoned on the seafloor? Yuasa imagined that his co-diver didn’t have much time left to live.

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“I was thinking, ‘I hope it doesn’t hurt. I hope it’s quick.’ It’s a bad death, isn’t it? For a start, you’re alone. So I hoped [that] it was quick and that it hadn’t hurt. And I was glad it wasn’t me,” Yuasa later admitted to The Independent. Frederick agreed that the situation “looked pretty hopeless,” as they had drifted more than 800 feet from Lemons and still hadn’t overridden the ship’s navigation system.

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But neither Yuasa nor Frederick said what was on their minds. Instead, the dive supervisor continued to phone down to the diving bell and report on their progress. “We’re going to get [the ship] back there. I have total confidence [that] this isn’t a recovery mission; it’s a rescue mission,” he remembered saying.

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Then, after a half-hour – which meant that Lemons had exhausted his oxygen tank – Frederick had regained control of the vessel. Yuasa then dived in search of his comrade, after which he found Lemons’ lifeless body reposed atop the oil-rigging structure. And of that moment, Yuasa would frankly explain, “I didn’t expect [Lemons] to be alive. Why would you?”

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But Yuasa still shared his breathing tube with Lemons as he carried the weight of the diver’s body back to the bell. And once Allcock slipped off the helmet that covered Lemons’ head, he saw an unforgettable sight. As he described it to The Independent, “[Lemons] is a bald guy, he’s half-frozen to death, and he’s gone as blue as a pair of denim jeans.”

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Regardless of how dire Lemons’ situation appeared, though, Allcock positioned the lifeless body so that he could try mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. He pushed fingers into the diver’s nose, kept his head straight and breathed air into his mouth. Then the unthinkable happened: Lemons took a huge, resonating inhale.

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Allcock said that the sound of Lemons’s breath reminded him of “New Year, crackers, fireworks, you name it. Everything. It was like, ‘Bloody hell! He’s actually alive!’” Even with the diver breathing, however, there still lingered the possibility that he had suffered brain damage while underwater for so long without oxygen.

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Eventually, though, Lemons regained total coherence, beginning to speak to his coworkers on the diving bell within minutes of his resuscitation. And as a consequence, the diver defied some serious odds in making it out of the North Sea with his life. In general, you see, a human can only survive for three minutes without oxygen.

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Experts have theorized, then, that Lemons’ body had first reacted to the extremely cold temperature of the North Sea – remember, his cut-off umbilical cord had provided warmth as well as oxygen. After that, it’s postulated that the freezing environment caused Lemons’ vital organs to slow down to the point where they needed much less oxygen.

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And obviously, when the outside world heard Lemons’ story, it reacted with intrigue. In fact, many people reached out to his employer, Bibby Offshore, to find out how he had managed to survive. To answer all their questions succinctly, then, the company collaborated with Floating Harbour Films to create an industry film called Lifeline, which they released in 2013.

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Eventually, Lifeline gave way to Last Breath, a 2019 documentary that told Lemons’ story. This movie used footage captured by the diving support vessel’s cameras as well as reconstructions of the events. In addition, the filmmakers spoke with some of the crew members involved, including Lemons, Yuasa, Allcock and Frederick.

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In the documentary, Lemons also tells audiences what it was like to have his umbilical snap, acknowledging that it initially seemed unlikely he would receive help in time. First, the diver heartbreakingly reveals, “I realized very quickly that my chances of survival or being rescued were pretty much non-existent.”

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“You do the quick maths in the moment, and I knew that the bailout would only last five or six minutes at absolute best,” Lemons goes on. “I knew that even if they had been straight above me or on their way to rescue me, there was a decent chance that I wouldn’t have been back in time.”

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Surprisingly, though, Lemons said that he had quickly felt at peace with what he had assumed to be his fate. “Once I had resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to save myself, calm comes over you… It wasn’t a case of frantically thrashing about and searching for a solution; it was a case of quiet resignation and thinking of the people you’re going to leave behind,” he admits.

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So, needless to say, when Lemons awoke in the midst of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, he felt very confused. It took several days for him to understand “the gravity of the situation,” the diver told the BBC in April 2019. As for how he survived? Well, Lemons smiles as he says in Last Breath, “I don’t think I will ever know.”

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Afterward, Lemons returned home, and a few months later he and his fiancée exchanged vows and became husband and wife. Perhaps most surprising of all, though, his experience did little to deter him from pursuing his career. A mere three weeks after the accident, Lemons returned to the North Sea with his team, ready to dive once again – and he continues to do so today.

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