A firefighter who drowned in Lake Norman while trying to retrieve the body of a lost swimmer died from a gas embolism after running out of air and surfacing too rapidly, according to a report released Thursday by the Iredell County medical examiner.
Bradley Long, 28, of the Sherrills Ford-Terrell Fire and Rescue fire department, died on June 6 after gas bubbles likely blocked an artery during a hurried, emergency ascent, according to the report.
Long was in the water with two other divers from the department for 14 minutes when rescuers monitoring air usage from a boat on the surface signaled them to begin a controlled ascent.
Long, who was 6-foot-1 and 300 pounds and laboring at up to 81 feet deep, was breathing heavily throughout the dive, investigative reports said, causing rapid consumption of the gas in his Scuba tank. He did not ascend when he was low on air, investigators concluded.
When the divers began going up, the report from Iredell medical examiner Franklin Pippin said, Long ascended with increasing speed after passing 68 feet in depth without performing required safety stops.
Common diving protocols require divers to stop for about 3 minutes 15 to 20 feet below the surface to give the body time to release nitrogen build-up. Without the pause, bubbles can form in the blood blocking circulation or leading to decompression sickness.
At 20 feet, a fellow diver said Long motioned that he was out of air and appeared to panic, removing his mask and the mask of the other diver.
His fellow diver surfaced and called for help, but Long drowned before help could reach him.
No equipment problems were found with the dive gear used that day. Long’s tank was found to be essentially empty and no back-up sources of gas were used, investigators found.
Long’s death was investigated by the Iredell Sheriff’s Office. Separate investigations are underway by OSHA and other agencies.
Long, who grew up in a fire-fighting family, was a captain at the Newton Fire Department, which he joined as a part-time firefighter in 2007. He was named Fireman of the Year by the Newton Elks Lodge this year.
He also volunteered with Sherrills Ford-Terrell Fire and Rescue, starting 12 years ago.