Barbara Wescott Pontliana, Janet Arnold, and Nigel Andrade diving to 283 fsw, due to poor navigation to dive site. Actual site was 180 fsw, on the steepslope from the continental shelf to the abyss.
Brian Nordstrom remembers that the water was crystal clear, "the
prettiest blue," and he remembers the seductive underwater
beauty of the sea, and how it seemed to envelop the divers and draw
them, almost unwittingly, deeper and deeper into it.
And then he remembers the black regulator, the one that Barbara Wescott
Pontliana was trying to twist into the mouth of an
unconscious diver held by Janet Arnold, at a depth of 280 feet. And how,
after grabbing the diver, he watched Pontliana and
Arnold rise through the water ahead of him.
"They were hanging onto each other, arms like this (locked) ... perfect.
Just what you do. One person can pull the other person up,"
Brian Nordstrom will never forget that sight. It was the last time he
saw Janet Arnold and Barb Pontliana. No one has seen them
Nine days after disappearing in the Caribbean near Ocho Rios, Jamaica,
the bodies of Arnold and Pontliana are yet to be found.
Officially, they are listed as missing, a status that may not change for
7 years, according to Alice Moore, consul with the U.S.
Embassy in Kingston.
The body of a third victim, Nigel Andrade, a Jamaican dive master, was
found on the surface of the water, even before all of the
divers had made it back to the boat.
The official search for the women, conducted earlier with helicopters,
ships and divers, has been called off. The Jamaican
government has asked local fishermen to watch the coast.
A memorial service for Pontliana, 32, who lived in Eden Prairie, was
held Friday at Christ the King Catholic Church in south
Minneapolis. Yesterday, many of the same people attended a service for
Arnold, 32, of Minneapolis, at Grace United Methodist
Church in Webster, Wis., near her mother's home.
But while the search and the services are over, the pain and grief
remain, a long with the questions of what happened.
The trouble apparently began when some of the divers hit bottom at more
than twice the depth expected. It was compounded
when Phil Ruffley, 39, of Minnetonka, lost consciousness and convulsed,
leading to frantic attempts to rescue him that imperiled
some of the others.
It had not been a good week for diving in fact, said Jim Stark, 63, of
Richfield, the rainy and windy weather had made many of
them sick. The group had arrived at Ocho Rios on March 11, but they had
been forced to wait three days to dive, and then only
A short dive off the boat Thursday whetted their appetites for something
better, said Nordstrom, 29, of Shorewood that night,
Andrade told the group of a good reef 60 to 80 feet down, Mommytree
Reef. They decided to dive for it the next morning.
On Friday there wasn't a cloud in the sky, and the winds had calmed
slightly, although heavy swells remained on the sea. Clifford
Whitehill, 58, a senior vice president for General Mills who has made up
to 75 dives, said conditions wore fine for diving.
Jude Arnold, 37 was suffering from motion sickness, so her sister Janet
was paired on the dive with Pontliana. Arnold had learned
to dive six years ago; Pontliana was certified for diving by Nordstrom
According to Whitehill and Stark an argument about the roughness of the
sea and the diving location erupted between the ship's
captain and Andrade, both of whom worked for Sea & Dive Jamaica, a local
dive shop. The captain said he couldn't let down the
anchor and allow the boat to tug up against it. So the anchor wasn't
dropped. "If the anchor had been let down, one would have
known it was not 80 foot water," Whitehill said.
Nordstrom said he never heard any such argument. What he remembers is
his excitement, and Andrade's, about what they figured
to be an easy and care free dive. Two dive masters for seven divers was
an exceptionally safe ratio, he said.
"We were kind of laughing about it and saying, this is going to be
great, maybe I'll be able to see some coral and some fish and still
watch the people," Nordstrom said.
The plan was to dive to a maximum depth of 80 feet and spend about 20
minutes on the reef, which would require about 900 psi
(pounds per square inch) of oxygen per diver. Nordstrom said each diver
had about 2,500 psi, while he had about 1,800 since, as
an instructor, he knew how to make his supply last longer. The deeper a
diver goes, the faster his air supply is used up.
The group dived off the boat and met underneath it. "We all signaled OK
at 15 feet, then the indications were to go ahead and
make the descent," Whitehill said.
"What is normal on dives like this is, the native instructor will bring
the group down to the bottom. He knows the bottom . . . like
we know our city blocks," Nordstrom said "So they were to follow Nigel
to the bottom."
Since Andrade was leading his group down, Nordstrom brought up the rear,
watching for signs of trouble. He helped Stark clear
his ears and continued down. Most of the group was below him.
"I still couldn't see a bottom and we should've seen a bottom,"
Nordstrom said. He realized the group was going too deep.
"Steve (Whitehill, 23, his son) was descending faster than I was," said
Cliff Whitehill. "We kept descending and descending and I
became concerned that something was wrong here. We were passing 100 feet
and still no bottom in sight."
Nordstrom rapped his dive cord on his cylinder, which makes a loud noise
underwater. Everyone kept going. By now, he was at
Merlin Knuth of Brooklyn Park, realizing they were going too deep, broke
from the group and swam to Nordstrom, who now saw
that the group's bubble stream had moved some distance away. It meant
there was a current, pushing away from the shore out to
Nordstrom sent Knuth and Stark back up and then started down after the
rest of the group. By now he sensed trouble, but he did
not yet know how much.
Cliff Whitehill hadn't caught up with his son until they touched bottom.
At that point, he said his depth gauge read 180 feet
The Whitehills were 10 to 15 feet down a slight slope from Andrade,
Ruffley, Pontliana and Arnold, also on the bottom. They went
to join them.
"We all in a controlled panic. We knew we mare in trouble, but we knew
we had to do something about it. We panicked and
thought and acted," Ruffley said.
Andrade motioned to form a circle, and the group -- Arnold, Pontliana ,
Andrade, Ruffley and the Whitehills -- linked arms and
began to ascend together. They had gone about 25 feet when Ruffley
suddenly became disoriented, losing consciousness along with
his regulator. What had been an organized group of six turned into
Steve Whitehill tried to give Ruffley air, despite the fact that he was
perilously low. Then the others took over, and Steve came
alongside his father. Cliff Whitehill, who has the use of only one arm
because of polio, grabbed Steve and started up.
"Steve was out of air," Whitehill said. "I gave Steve my regulator and
he was breathing from that as we were ascending. Then
Steve indicated my tank was out of air." With about 50 feet remaining,
the Whitehills made an emergency ascent, using the air
remaining in their lungs.
When they reached the surface, Steve Whitehill was incoherent and
bleeding from his mouth and nose as his father dragged him to
the boat 100 yards away.
"His father saved (Steve's) life," Knuth said.
The first person Nordstrom saw on his way down was Andrade, floating up
and looking relaxed "My initial response (to him was),
what are you doing --there's divers down there -- what are you doing --
go down," Nordstrom said. Andrade looked at him and
made a helpless gesture with his hands.
"I was angry with him because he left," Nordstrom said.
"The possibility is very great that, after the group formed and we
started up, that (Andrade) suffered under (nitrogen) narcosis,"
Whitehill said. Nitrogen moves into the body in proportion to the water
pressure, and too much nitrogen may result in a feeling of
euphoria, dulling a divers senses and slowing his mental processes.
Nordstrom remembers seeing the Whitehills ascending together. And then
he saw Arnold and Pontliana with Ruffley, who was
By now, the current had carried them away from the continental shelf
where they had alighted, over the shelf's edge and into
ocean depths plunging as low as 450 feet.
The continental shelf on Jamaica's north coast is only a few hundred
yards wide, said Jeremy Woodley, a biologist with the
Discovery Bay Marine Laboratory who is assisting Ocho Rios police in its
investigation. The shelf forms a boundary between land
and the deeper parts of the ocean. The top of the shelf is about 100 to
200 feet deep; at its edge, the drop-off to the bottom
measures from 100 to 150 feet, Woodley said. "When the people touched
bottom at 180 feet, they were very near the edge," he
Nordstrom saw the two women holding Ruffley as Pontliana tried to insert
her emergency regulator in to his mouth, to enable him
to breathe air from her tank Ruffley's eyes were closed. He looked
Pontliana, seeing Nordstrom arrive, moved aside as he grabbed Ruffley by
the neck and signaled the women to ascend. They went
ahead as he secured Ruffley for the long trip back up. His electronic
depth gauge, which has since been checked for accuracy,
registered 283 feet.
"Everybody I saw in the water the whole time was fine except Phil, and
Phil I thought was gone," Nordstrom said.
Another problem presented itself: Nordstrom had no air left. "I couldn't
breathe," he said, although on the way up he kept the
regulator in his mouth and caught short breath of air from his tank.
At the surface, Ruffley awoke with a start. An astonished Nordstrom, who
had believed he was dead, pulled him to the boat.
Then Nordstrom began shouting: "Where are the girls? Where are the
girls?" No one new.
The ship's captain spotted Andrade's body and went to pull it in, and
Nordstrom swam to the Whitehills, who were drifting some
distance from the boat. Steve Whitehill was on his back and "In bad
shape." Nordstrom said.
After getting back to the boat, Nordstrom said he again hollered for
Arnold and Pontliana. Three ships were in the area, having
responded to radioed calls for help from the boat captain. Nordstrom
climbed to the top deck and yelled to them, "Two girls!"
"It didn't drawn on me that they were in the water" Nordstrom said. "I
knew they were scared floating on the surface. I expected
to see them, 100 percent.. And we (had) to find them."
The boat circled the area for several minutes, and then -- with other
ships on the water and a helicopter apparently on the way --
they decided to get Steve Whitehill to the hospital. Nordstrom, Ruffley
and Knuth returned to the area after dropping the rest of
the team off at the pier They searched, Nordstrom said, for about two
The entire episode, from the dive into the water until Nordstrom emerged
with Ruffley, had taken about 12 minutes.
It's clear the group wasn't diving where they had intended, but why is
another matter. You have to question the mistake of both
the captain and the dive master (Andrade) as to the location," Cliff
Whitehill said. "Certainly Brian couldn't have known. We
assumed it was a very broad reef, maybe a quarter mile wide."
Janet's mother, Fran Arnold of Danbury, Wis., said, "If they didn't hit
the spot, they should not have let the divers off the boat"
The big problem, Nordstrom said, was the ocean itself. "If the current
was going in, we would've been fine. If the current was
going sideways, we would've been fine," he said. "There was a current.
There was something that took us away from where we
were supposed to be"
And why had the divers followed Andrade so deep? Some said they trusted
the dive master to know what he was doing. He was
experienced in those waters. "When they say you're going down and you're
going to be on a 70 foot reef, nobody expected
literally for the bottom not to be there low," Cliff Whitehill said.
Nordstrom said he thinks the beauty of the sea and their own excitement
may have distracted the divers. He cannot explain
Andrade's behavior, and doesn't know if it may have been caused by
alcohol or drugs. An autopsy of Andrade's body has been
done, but test results will not in available until next week.
Might Arnold and Pontliana have made it if they hadn't stopped to help
"The possibility of living would have been greater if they didn't try
that, sure," Nordstrom said. "They could've been down there
for maybe an extra 15 seconds, which could be a long time: It could be
Woodley said the bodies may never be found. "My feeling is that by the
time they hit bottom, they would have been at 400 feet;
the bodies would have sunk well out of scuba depth," he said. "They
were, in fact, well out of scuba depth when they were last
Nordstrom discounted hero status, even though Woodley said, "I think the
save Brian made was fairly incredible. He saved the life
of the man called Phil."
Brian was a trooper through the whole thing, "Ruffley said. "He grabbed
the person in most distress and that was me."
Nordstrom and his wife, Rue, met with the families of Pontliana and
Arnold an Wednesday and Thursday. "It was hard to look at
them, because they have had no idea what happened, and I was the last
one to see them alive, and to tell them what happened -- I
feel so bad," he said.
Janet Arnold was a computer systems analyst at Marigold Foods Inc. in
Minneapolis, ever since traveling six months in Europe last
year. A St. Paul native, her family moved to the Danbury area in 1971
and she graduated from Webster (Wis.) High School in
1976. A graduate of a two-year computer course at Minneapolis Technical
Institute, she served as president of the board of
directors for the Wedge Community Coop in south Minneapolis.
Arnold, who was certified as a diver in 1981, won the trip to Ocho Rios
through a contest sponsored a year ago by Club Scuba.
She elected to take along her sister Jude, a more experienced diver
"She died as she would have wanted, in a beautiful place on an exciting
adventure, and trying to help those around her," Jude
Pontliana, the fifth of six children, had been manager at TGI Friday's
in Roseville for three years. She graduated from the
University of Minnesota and married Como Pontliana, general manager of
Grandma's Saloon & Deli in Minneapolis, in September
She was introduced to diving while the two were an a Jamaican vacation
last October, and her fascination with the sport led to her
certification as on open water diver in a cold, Missouri lake in
December. Her trip to Jamaica last week was her first chance to try
out her newly-acquired diving skills, Como Pontliana said.
Sunday and Monday night, Pontliana's husband and sisters -- Ann Method
of Northville, Mich., Jane Schadegg of Maple Grave and
Mary Wescott of Edina -- waited for hours at the Humphrey Charter
Terminal for Pontliana's baggage, not knowing when it was to
arrive. The wait was long and frustrating, but there was nothing better
they could think to do.
"The shock came Friday night. We waited until Saturday to tell our
parents. We weren't able to spring into action We just held onto
each other and cried," Method said. But on Sunday and for the last few
days, the sisters have worked hard to find out as much
about what happened as possible.
Method said she was angry, in part, because her sister apparently had
trained for diving in the right way "Barb went about this
properly -- proper training, proper conditioning, proper certification,
proper equipment -- She did what she was told."
Recently, Pontliana had fill out the organ release form on her driver's
license application and asked her mother to sign it. When her
mother objected Pontliana became adamant, Method said "you have to do
that, "Method recalls her saying "Giving your organs is
just something you have to do."
"Now," Method said with a catch in her voice, "there's no body to do
Kudos & BrickbatsE-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org<Wrolf Courtney>