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Fatal Dive at the Red Sea

Sue Kahana was an experienced diver, and her trip to Sinai was meant to be another joyous occasion. But something went wrong on her 70th dive.
By Hana Levi Julian
First Publish: 2/28/2010, 3:47 PM / Last Update: 2/28/2010, 10:36 PM

Hana Levi Julian

Sue and Nachman Kahana were experienced divers, and their trip to the Sinai Peninsula with a religious group of divers was meant to be another wonderful vacation to the Sharm a-Sheikh beach area. But the couple, longtime and popular residents of the Gush Etzion community of Elazar who immigrated to Israel from the U.S. 30 years ago, ran into tragedy last Tuesday morning that cost Sue her life while diving in an area that descends to a depth of 200 meters.

INN spoke to a friend of the family to get the details of what happened.

Sue, an IT specialist at Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical School in Jerusalem, was unable to take advantage of the Israeli medical expertise she needed until it was too late, due to bureaucratic delay.

The tragedy which took her life began as Sue and Nachman dove together with an Israeli scuba diving group in the Red Sea resort area.

“Since there were strong currents we were instructed to descend as soon as we hit the water, and so we did,” Nachman said. He checked with his wife after descending several meters, to make sure all was well, and upon receiving her signal that she was fine, continued his dive. But when he reached 30 meters, Nachman said he noticed that Sue was plummeting towards the bottom, too fast. “I tried to signal her but she did not respond,” he related. Immediately, he started swimming towards his wife, as did diving instructor Assaf Schwartz, who was leading the group. Schwartz had also noticed Sue dropping away.

Schwartz caught up with Sue at 50 meters, and the two men started bringing her back up, slowly, in order to prevent barotrauma. At ten meters, said Nachman, Sue was still responsive, and squeezed her husband's hand in response when he squeezed hers. She lost consciousness just before reaching the surface, although she was still breathing, said Nachman. “I cleaned the foam from her mouth together with Assaf, and we started to administer CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation),” he recalled. CPR continued for at least ten minutes, while two divers who came to their aid helped pulled Sue into a Zodiac boat also continued CPR, along with other divers in the group, who were IDF medics.

The entire dive had lasted only 17 minutes.

The diving team spent 30 minutes desperately trying to save Sue's life and then an Egyptian rescue boat arrived with a doctor and professional equipment. Quickly Sue was transferred into the sea craft and raced to shore, where doctors at an Egyptian hospital examined and treated her. Dr. Adel Taher, manager of the hyperbaric chamber, diagnozed that Sue had suffered a blockage in one of her lungs while underwater, and that the lung had collapsed. Multi-system shutdown had then followed. Afterwards, Egyptian police questioned both her husband and the diving instructor.

Sue spent two days in the emergency care unit in Egypt.

As her condition continued to deteriorate, the family attempted to have Sue transferred to Assaf HaRofeh Hospital in Tzrifin, Israel, where she was to be treated by diving medicine specialist Dr. Avi Mizrahi. Nachman said precious time was wasted, however, because the diving insurance company, provided through the Israeli Diving Federation, initially refused to fly Sue for treatment in Israel – forcing her stunned family to find tens of thousands of shekels out of pocket for the flight and the ambulance.

The insurance company did eventually give its approval to fly her to Israel at its expense but the family did not wait for that final approval which requires certification by a medical doctor, and ordered a private plane as quickly as possible at their own expense.

Despite that, by the time she arrived on Friday morning, she was brain dead. Doctors formally declared Sue's death a few hours later, and her burial was completed before the Sabbath at her family's request.

Sue was buried at Kfar Etzion cemetery on Friday afternoon. A large crowd of stunned friends and relatives braved the pouring rain to mourn along with her husband, son and three daughters and their families.