A Doncaster diver with 17 years’ experience died while exploring a sunken war wreck off the coast of Italy, an inquest heard.
Paul Towning, aged 49, developed a condition often referred to as ‘the bends’, which is caused when divers surface too quickly and nitrogen bubbles form in their blood.
The volume of gas in his body was 10 times higher than it should have been when he reached the surface following a 90-metre dive to the wreck of the SS Bengasi – an Italian ship sunk in May 1941 off the island of Cavoli.
The inquest at Doncaster Coroner’s Court heard that Mr Towning’s wife, Jacqueline, was sunbathing with the wife of dive organiser Aldo Ferrucci when she was told about the accident.
Mrs Towning, a hairdresser, said: “I was hysterical. Some of the other divers were saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ when I arrived and I realised he had died.”
“I kept saying, ‘Why wouldn’t you save him?’
“But they said there was nothing they could do.”
Mr Towning, of Millstream Close, Sprotbrough, was the only Briton taking part in the expedition with six other divers.
Other divers on the trip reported seeing Mr Towning kicking his legs rapidly and rising quickly to the surface surrounded by bubbles and without his mouthpiece in during the dive on May 20, 2013. Attempts to revive Mr Towning on the boat were unsuccessful.
Investigators in Italy believe Mr Towning had used his rebreather breathing apparatus inappropriately by changing a control that caused his oxygen levels to soar to a dangerous level.
Summarising the Italian investigation, police diver Lee Woodward told Doncaster Coroner’s Court that it seemed Mr Towning had ‘misunderstood’ why the levels had changed. Instead of switching off the main loop, he had instead tried to dilute the oxygen with other gas.
The inquest heard Mr Towning had been a diver for 17 years and had advanced qualifications.
Giving evidence, Craig Andrew Lindley who trained with Mr Towning, said: “He was one of the most competent and rational divers I have ever dealt with. He had an impeccable attitude to safety and often practiced emergency scenarios.”
Mr Towning had completed a 65-metre test dive in Italy just two days before the incident. The inquest heard an anonymous letter had been sent to Mrs Towning making allegations about the safety of the dive and suggesting Mr Towning was not suitably qualified.
But Mrs Towning dismissed the claims, saying her husband had advanced qualifications and would not have taken part if he had safety concerns. A cause of death of arterial gas embolism with pulmonary overextension was suggested at the inquest but Coroner Curtis was forced to adjourned the proceedings until November pending a full written report from the pathologist in Italy.