Coast Guard cutter returns to port early after diver deaths in Arctic

Officials offer no new information about incident

Posted: Tuesday, September 05, 2006

SEATTLE - The Coast Guard cutter Healy is back in port after aborting an Arctic voyage for research into global warming two months ahead of schedule because of the unexplained death of two divers.

The arrival of the 420-foot vessel, normally a joyous occasion for relatives and friends of the crew, was subdued Sunday following the death of Lt. Jessica Hill, 31, of St. Augustine, Fla., and Petty Officer 2nd Class Steven Duque, 22, of Miami, on a training dive last month.

Authorities have given little information on the circumstances of the deaths and said there was nothing new to report Sunday. Civilians who met the Healy said they had been told little, either, and were just glad their own loved ones had returned.

Carole Bark said her son, Jon Loftis, a diesel mechanic, "didn't say anything" about what happened to the divers.

"It's just good to have him back and hug him and be able to connect with him after the tragic loss they had on board," Bark said. "We'll have some kind of celebration."

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Capt. Douglas G. Russell, who assumed command of the Healy in June, was relieved of command following the deaths on Aug. 17 and replaced by his predecessor, Capt. Daniel K. Oliver, for the return to Seattle. The executive officer, Jeff Jackson, will now take over until a new commander is chosen, Coast Guard officials said.

Vice Adm. Charles D. Wurster, commander of the Coast Guard in the Pacific, said in the wake of the deaths he had a "loss of confidence in (Russell's) ability to command."

Two scientific missions - the testing of a small submarine and the mapping of the ocean floor off Alaska - were scrubbed and morale among crew members "hasn't been the highest, but they're trying to cope," navigator Tim Sullivan said.

Crew members "have been through a lot," Oliver said.

The deaths followed "a shallow water Arctic familiarization dive" that was part of the Hill's and Duque's training about 500 miles northwest of Barrow, Alaska. Both were given emergency medical care after being brought aboard the ship but could not be revived.

Russell said at the time the deaths were "a tragic dive accident."

The bodies were flown to Seattle for autopsies and then sent to Florida for funerals.

Crew members were offered counseling by professionals who were flown to Alaska and the Healy made an unscheduled four-day stop in Kodiak before heading for Seattle.

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