Soldier died in dive training

Saturday 2nd July 2022 4:00 pm
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L/Cpl George Partridge ()

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A soldier died during an army diving lesson after a scheduled stage of his five-week training course had been skipped, an inquest was told.

Lance Corporal George Partridge, 27, and eleven other soldiers were four weeks into the course when, on March 26 2018, he died at the National Diving Centre at TidenhamThat day the trainees had been scheduled due to perform Dive 19 in their course, going down to a depth of 21-23metres, the Gloucester inquest was told.

But a decision was taken on the day to skip that exercise and go straight on to Dive 20 - descending to a submerged helicopter at a depth of 26-27metres.

L/Cpl Partridge of 26 Engineer Regiment, who was rated by instructors as the top student in his group, went down at 11am with ‘buddy’ Stephen Hart but minutes later he got into trouble and when he was brought to the surface his face mask was hanging off and his two air tanks were found to be empty.

The dive supervisor, Staff Sgt Justin Dolly, was questioned by a lawyer representing L/Cpl Partridge’s family, about the reason behind the decision not to go ahead with Dive 19 as planned.

He told the inquest jury it was felt that the dive could be skipped because the previous week the trainees had done two deeper dives, one to 30metres in the Solent, off Southampton.

He agreed with the assistant Gloucestershire Coroner Roland Wooderson, who suggested that the ‘reason for the change was to do something more interesting and recce the helicopter?”

Sgt Dolly said “We decided to dive to the wreck of the helicopter which was more interesting than what they had seen in the previous four weeks of training.”

At the start of the inquest the coroner told the jury: “He took part in a dive but towards the end he failed to respond to communications. A stand by diver was deployed to rescue George and he found him and removed him from the water.

“Medical assistance was sought but very sadly George was declared to have passed away.

“Since his death various investigations and enquiries have taken place and you will hear more about those in due course.”

The coroner said issues for the jury to consider would include the equipment used by George while diving, the systems in operation at the privately run diving centre on the day in question and the medical cause of his death.

The inquest began with the jury being shown a mannequin wearing the same diving jacket and equipment that L/C Partridge was using that day.

Staff Sgt Dolly then told the jury that he considered after four weeks of the course that George was ‘doing really well.’

“One of the instructors rated him the top student on the course,” he said.

“I thought he was very fit and robust and more switched on than other members of the course.”

Sgt Dolly told the coroner that divers had an audio communication system but it was unreliable and their dive attendants on the surface would then resort to pulling on a lifeline, using Morse-code like signals.

For a period of time, he said, he saw two sets of bubbles coming to the surface from L/C Partridge and his ‘buddy.’ It appeared at one stage that they were working together to untangle a line.

After 10 minutes they attempted from the surface to use the voice communications system to tell the men to finish the dive but they got no response from either diver. One of the attendants thought George had sent a signal on the lifeline, he said, but he did not feel it was sufficient to be sure that he was communicating.

Neither man then responded to a lifeline signal to call them back, he added, but then diver Hart signalled he was ascending.

“I immediately sent down the standby diver, Corporal Michael Watson.”

He said when George was brought to the surface ‘I could see that he was not wearing his face mask. It was dangling from his suit. When he surfaced I believe he was unconscious. This was 11.17am.

“We got him out of the water and called 999 immediately. I also pressed the panic button the jetty. George’s air cylinders were investigated and both were empty.”

Eliot Woolf QC, for the family, asked Sgt Dolly if he felt that the amount of time the students had been diving in excess of 10metres during their course was sufficient for them to dive safely to the helicopter that day.

“All the boxes had been ticked in the run up to this dive,” the sergeant said.

But, pressed by Mr Woolf, he added “In my opinion they (the students) could have done with more medium range depth training.”

At the time of the tragedy, he said, he had not been taught about air endurance tables which show how long a diver can safely stay down at depth.

In answer to a question from the jury he said that the use of air endurance tables had been introduced by the army later in the year of George’s death.

Sgt Dolly was also asked by Mr Woolf if he had been authorised by his senior officer to skip Dive 19 and go straight to 20.

“I think I spoke to him that day but he said afterwards that he didn’t speak to me,” said Sgt Dolly.

Asked if he was sure he had spoken to the officer and whether he could explain why he did not produce a phone log of the call the Sergeant said he knew he had spoken to someone.

Mr Woolf asked Sgt Dolly “The conclusion reached about replacing Dive 19 with Dive 20 removed a main stepping stone in the students learning, didn’t it? It was Good Friday that week - were you under pressure to remove a day of the exercises so everyone could end the course a day early?”

But Sgt Dolly insisted that the course would have continued on the Bank Holiday so that was not a factor in the decision.

The sergeant accepted that if air endurance tables had been in use at that time he would have been able to reduce the duration of Dive 20 to prevent problems.

The inquest is expected to end tomorrow (Thursday).

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