Navy diver drowned refusing to leave his fellow sailor

August 4, 2014

The late Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Harris, shown here in 2011 inspecting an oxygen mask, died last year along with Petty Officer 1st Class James Reyher in a diving accident at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md. (U.S. Navy photo by Seaman Jah’mai C.J. Stokes)

When Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Harris and Petty Officer 1st Class James Reyher descended to the murky depths of a pond at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., last year, virtually everything went wrong. Their equipment didn’t work right, the communication with sailors on the surface wasn’t clear, and debris trapped Reyher some 150 feet underwater in scuba gear.

But there’s more to the story. According to a report in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper on Sunday, Harris, 23, had the option to cut the line connecting him to Reyher underwater and survive. He refused to do it, though, doing everything in his power to free Reyher, 28, until both men died on Feb. 26, 2013.

“Harris exhausted himself in an attempt to save Reyher,” said a military investigator in documents obtained by the Virginian-Pilot. “Both divers resisted the natural instincts of self-preservation, in order to expel his last breaths in an effort to save each other.”

The men were with the Navy’s Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 2. Rescue divers tried twice to save them, but their bodies were lifeless when they were brought to the surface 31 minutes after they started their dive, the newspaper reported. The investigating officer determined that Harris, in particular, could have done a number of things to save himself, including using a backup breathing regulator to get to his reserve air, cutting the line between him and Reyher or trying to inflate their vests.

Navy officials say that Harris will posthumously receive the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his actions. The award is sometimes called the “non-combat Medal of Honor,” and is typically awarded to service members in the Navy and Marine Corps who demonstrate heroism not involving an armed conflict.

Harris was married with two young daughters, according to his obituary. Reyher also was married, and “loved to spoil and aggravate his wife,” according to his obituary.

The incident resulted in discipline for at least five personnel, Navy officials said. Four of them were charged with dereliction of duty in October after refusing to accept administrative punishment. One of them, Chief Petty Officer Gary Ladd Jr., ultimately changed his mind, the Virginian-Pilot reported in January.

The commanding officer of their unit, Cmdr. Michael Runkle, was removed from his job in May 2013 after an investigation determined that there were a variety of problems in his unit.

Senior Chief Navy Diver James Burger was found guilty in January of dereliction of duty for conducting the dive without proper safeguards, according to a Navy Times report. He was reduced one rank, to E-7. The parents of both fallen sailors offered emotionally wrenching testimony during the hearing, saying they struggle with what happened.

“To my dying day, I will not understand not putting safeguards in place,” said Deborah Harris, Ryan’s mother, according to Navy Times. “I’d say my heart is broken, there’s a piece of my heart that’s gone.”

Dan Lamothe covers national security for The Washington Post and anchors its military blog, Checkpoint.
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