Inquest Into Diver's Death

An inquest's heard how a combination of heavy equipment and distress contributed to the death of an experienced diver on a salvage expedition in the English Channel.

Stephen Pickering, 41, was part of a team looking to explore a sunken First World War ship carrying precious metals off the Dorset coast in August 1997.

He was diving with new, heavier gas cylinders and ignored advice from fellow divers to ditch his weight belt before entering the water to make him lighter, the inquest heard.

According to one colleague, Mr Pickering preferred to dive while weighed down heavily to enable him to work better in the depths of the sea.

Jeremy Lovell, part of a four-strong team on the salvage vessel Marja that day, said Mr Pickering appeared distressed after losing his mask when he jumped into the sea.

After returning to the surface, Mr Lovell threw him a replacement, but despite falling a short distance from Mr Pickering, he made no attempt to grab it.

Mr Lovell said he then threw a piece of rope into the water in the hope that he would reach for it. But he said: "He tried to grab for it and that's the last I saw of him.''

Clive Braund, master of the Marja, said:

"I could see that there was a problem. Everyone else said it would be OK, that he would ditch his gear and be back shortly.''

Bubbles could be seen from the area where Mr Pickering was last seen and a distress call was made.

Two rib crafts were launched and a helicopter and two naval warships were brought in to help the search.

But Mr Braund said the weather conditions quickly worsened and within a short space of time there was almost zero visibility due to thick fog.

The remains of Mr Pickering, who had been diving since the early 1980s, were not found until November last year by a passing Dutch vessel off the Kent coast.

Pathologist Dr David Rouse said a cause of death could not be determined.

He said:

"This would appear to be a combination of the loss of the dive mask coupled with the excess weight, which would have ended up with someone who has a degree of hypoxia through over exertion which has precipitated his collapse under the water.''

Fellow diver Gary Goodyear said Mr Pickering had not dived before with the heavier cylinders, and added: ``I made a comment that the cylinders were very heavy.

"I didn't use my weight belt. I communicated that to Steve, saying that he might want to lose his weight belt but he didn't do it. He didn't like being told what to do.''

He added that had Mr Pickering jumped into the water attached to a line he might have realised he was heavy and made appropriate adjustments to his weight.

"If he had a line to hold onto he would have been able to support himself and remove the weight belt. The fact that he didn't have any support and had lost his mask, I think he just succumbed to the water,'' he said.

Mr Lovell, from Grantham, Lincolnshire, said: "I think he must have panicked. I don't know why he didn't ditch his weight belt or ditch his cylinders.''

Inquiries by Dorset Police found nothing suspicious about the circumstances of the death of Mr Pickering, whose address was given as the Marja.

But the inquest also heard that Mr Pickering's mother, Iris Molyneux, from Barnsley, South Yorkshire, who did not attend the hearing at Folkestone Magistrates' Court in Kent, believes there are suspicions.

Detective Sergeant Julie Richards, of Kent Police, said the statements from the men, plus the disclosure of the new, heavier cylinders and the buoyancy problems Mr Pickering experienced, led to the conclusion that his death was an accident.

Recording a verdict of accidental death, coroner Rachel Redman said:

"I am satisfied with the accounts given by the experienced divers.

"I will, on the evidence I have heard, rule out any suspicious circumstances.''