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SeaWorld divers asked to resign after emergency raises questions

Orlando Sentinel

Original Article »

December 08, 2007

An hour before sunrise, three SeaWorld Orlando workers in scuba gear began slipping into the cool salt water of Dolphin Cove one day in late September for their cleaning chores -- only to encounter a life-and-death emergency that would nearly kill one diver and lead to the resignations of two others, one of whom was credited with helping to save her life.

It was the last weekend of a record summer, and all seemed well. Then, the accident plunged diver Andrea Preito, unconscious and not breathing -- and, for a time, unnoticed -- to the bottom of the dolphin pool.

Preito, 36, was rescued. She had no pulse when paramedics arrived, but she was resuscitated and, later, returned to work.

The accident was a stark reminder for all SeaWorld workers that even routine duties can be dangerous. It also tested SeaWorld's safety procedures and disciplinary policies, and the crisis capabilities of team members who love their unusual jobs and entrust their lives to one another.

Jay A. Yohn Jr., now 41, and Kelly Rodriguez, now 25, resigned after the Sept. 21 accident. Rodriguez says both were key to Preito's rescue.

Yohn would not talk publicly about the events, and the Orlando Sentinel could not reach Preito. Rodriguez, however, responded angrily to the accident's outcome, particularly because of what happened to Yohn, a veteran SeaWorld trainer who was looked up to, she says, by the others on the team. He was the hero, she says, yet he was forced to quit. She thinks the two of them were made scapegoats.

"You can't do this to somebody who just saved somebody's life," Rodriguez said.

Citing corporate policy and privacy laws, SeaWorld officials have said little about the incident except to release a bare outline of facts -- and to note that, after any accident, a thorough investigation is conducted and all safety protocols are reviewed to see whether any were breached.

"And we did all that in this situation. We did it carefully, and we did it very, very thoroughly," said Christine O'Neal, SeaWorld's vice president for human resources. "In the end, we made the decisions that were best for the company and . . . as a result of the investigations, two employees did resign."

The Orange County Sheriff's Office conducted a routine investigation of the event as a potential crime but concluded it was an industrial accident. A final sheriff's forensics report released late last month to the Orlando Sentinel shed little additional light on what happened. The Sheriff's Office also referred the case to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but that agency would not investigate further.

Shortly after 6 a.m. on the day of the accident, a Friday, a six-member team -- which helps care for the dolphins in Dolphin Cove as well as other groups of SeaWorld animals -- began preparing its four scuba divers for a daily cleaning of the pool with underwater vacuums and pressure washers.

The divers wear full scuba gear, sometimes multiple wetsuits to protect against the 72-degree water, and weights to counteract buoyancy. Two team members stay on deck to watch as safety spotters. The pool is about 150 feet long and ranges in depth from a beach at one end to 14 feetin places. There were 21 dolphins in the cove that morning.

Rodriguez said she was to be the fourth diver in. She said Preito, the third one in, had already dropped over a wall into an area that was 6 to 8 feet deep when Yohn -- a spotter that day -- called out to Rodriguez not to go in yet. He then headed toward the equipment shack, beyond one end of the pool, the sheriff's incident report said. Rodriguez said later that she understood then that her role was to be a standby second spotter, a routine fill-in task. She went down to one end of the pool to stand with her equipment.

The sheriff's incident report indicates that Yohn said he was gone for only a minute, to turn on a pressure washer. He returned, checked on Preito, the report states, and "when he looked into the pool he observed her on her back, regulator out of her mouth and unconscious."

Yohn yelled for someone to call 911, threw off his shoes, jumped in "and made contact with Preito," the report continues. "He advised that he tried to inflate her "BC" [buoyancy compensator] without success. He advised that another employee came over to help get Preito's gear off. He advised that while this was going on he was giving breaths to Preito."

Rodriguez said she was that other employee. By the time she arrived, Yohn had lifted Preito -- whose face was blue -- to the surface. Yohn, she said, was struggling to support Preito at the surface while also giving her rescue breaths.

Another team member soon arrived, Rodriguez said, and he held Preito up in the water while Rodriguez unstrapped the woman's weight belt and other gear, and Yohn continued giving breaths. They could not lift her over the viewing wall, so the three moved Preito 60 to 70 feet through the pool to the beach area, as Yohn continued the breaths, she said.

Another team member had called 911 at 6:21 a.m. Another fetched a backboard and helped get Preito onto it. According to Orange County Fire Rescue's report of the accident, paramedics arrived at 6:27 and radioed in to "code" Preito -- indicating she had no pulse. They got a pulse going, however, and rushed her to Dr. P. Phillips Hospital, the report states.

The incident was a wake-up call at SeaWorld, Rodriguez said. "As far as I know, this is one of the most intense things that has ever happened there," she said. "You never think anything like this will ever happen."

The fallout for Yohn and herself, Rodriguez said, began hours later, when SeaWorld officials interviewed them. In their initial statements, neither said Yohn had advised Rodriguez to fill in as spotter for a moment -- an omission that Rodriguez said became an issue. She said it was an oversight; both were still flustered and no one specifically asked her about it.

That night, Rodriguez learned Yohn had been suspended for leaving his post unattended. She said she could not stand for his getting blamed, so she sought a meeting with SeaWorld investigators Monday morning, to explain that Yohn had arranged for her to relieve him as a spotter.

A week later, both were asked to resign for leaving Preito unattended, she said.

Rodriguez insists she never turned her back on the divers and does not know how Preito's accident went unobserved. She maintains it was probably too dark for that kind of work. The divers, she said, can be very difficult to track underwater in the long, winding pool, especially when it is dark, because spotters sometimes can see only the divers' air bubbles. Though the cove area is lighted, the sky was still dark at the time and the pool can be full of shadows, she said.

O'Neal would not discuss the personnel actions specifically. But she said all such accident investigations include interviews of those involved, and SeaWorld needs "complete and accurate" accounts. "We have an expectation that those employees will give us complete information, that they will be forthcoming," she said.

SeaWorld stands by its safety policies, she added. "Safety of our employees and our guests and our animals is the most important thing to our company."

Shortly after the accident, the cleaning dives were rescheduled for later in the morning -- after sunrise. A spokeswoman said that change was made because of other scheduling issues, not because of the accident.

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