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The search continues in the gulf, but nothing turns up. The group of divers made a series of tragic errors, authorities say.
By CHRIS TISCH and MIKE BRASSFIELD
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2001
CLEARWATER -- Connie Auletta does not cling to hopeful visions of her son bobbing on the blue surface of the Gulf of Mexico, waiting to be rescued.
She heard how her son, a firefighter with the Lealman Fire Department, had surfaced after a dive Wednesday afternoon, then dropped underwater and out of the grip of a fellow firefighter and diving partner.
She heard how another firefighter dived to the bottom looking for him, but found nothing.
"I knew the minute they told me that he was gone," Connie Auletta said Thursday afternoon.
Still, authorities searched for 26-year-old Vincent "Kenny" Auletta on Wednesday night and all day Thursday. Coast Guard officials said they would huddle Thursday evening to decide whether to keep looking today.
Auletta is not certified as a diver, though his friends told deputies he has dived in the past.
Three Coast Guard vessels, two Sheriff's Office boats, a helicopter, a Coast Guard Auxiliary plane and two dive teams searched for Auletta on Thursday. Dozens of good Samaritans also helped.
But Auletta was not found, alive or dead.
Auletta had been diving with four fellow firefighters in the Gulf of Mexico about 7 miles offshore. They were on board a 22-foot Grady White open fisherman. They dropped anchor in about 42 feet of water.
Though no law prohibits it, diving without being certified is dangerous. Dive shops generally will not fill tanks for uncertified divers, hoping to avoid lawsuits if there is an accident, said Heyward Mathews, a dive instructor at St. Petersburg Junior College in St. Petersburg, who has taught about 1,100 people in 20 years of teaching.
Sheriff's officials said they didn't know whose equipment Auletta was wearing or how he got his tank filled, but Mathews said he suspects it came from a friend or fellow diver.
Mathews said the group of friends made a string of mistakes that began with Auletta's not being certified. Adding to the potential for tragedy was that the water temperature was cold and visibility was limited because winds had dirtied the water.
A sheriff's report states this is what unfolded:
After the anchor was dropped, fellow firefighter Michael Gority said he would dive down to check on the anchor. Auletta and his childhood friend and fellow firefighter, Andrew Rexford, dived to see if they had anchored near a reef.
Auletta followed Rexford to the bottom. Rexford decided they were not anchored in the right spot and started ascending, losing Auletta in the bubbles on the way up. When he surfaced, Rexford could not find his friend.
Then Auletta came up about 40 yards behind the boat. His mask was off and his regulator was not in his mouth -- bad signs, said sheriff's Sgt. Greg Tita, an experienced diver.
"You always want the regulator in your mouth because if you have air, you're okay," he said.
Then Auletta slipped beneath the surface. He came up, but began bobbing.
Firefighter Charles Guiles, who was on the boat, dived into the water without his gear and swam toward Auletta.
Guiles reached Auletta and grabbed for his buoyancy compensator as Auletta sank.
Guiles was pulled underwater. He held onto his sinking friend for as long as he could. Eventually, he had to let go.
Auletta was gone.
"Unfortunately, he wasn't able to keep Ken from going under," said Lealman Deputy Fire Chief David Brown. "At some point, your body's going to tell you to let go because you have to breathe."
Rexford then swam over to the area. With a tank of air, he dived. He went all the way to the bottom and used up all his air. But he could not find his friend.
They called for help on their radio and the search began. The Coast Guard placed a buoy in the water where Auletta was last seen, then watched as the water and wind pushed it 10 miles to the north-northeast by Thursday afternoon, said Dave Cameron, command duty officer at St. Petersburg.
Rescuers searched where the buoy floated, but also crisscrossed over where Auletta vanished. If Auletta didn't drown, the cold water would have killed him within 12 hours, Mathews said.
Tita said one of the first rules of diving is to drop your weight belt if something goes wrong.
Mathews said Auletta may have been disoriented by the low visibility and 58-degree water near the bottom. He became separated from Rexford.
At that point Auletta may have held his breath, a fatal mistake. If that happened, the pressure dropped as he rose and the air he kept bottled in his lungs expanded. There are no pain sensors in the lungs, so they could have literally burst. Mathews said it can happen in water less than 8 feet deep.
Connie Auletta said the horrors her son saw on the job made him cautious. He had seen enough wrecks to know he should fasten his seat belt. And he vowed to never ride a motorcycle.
It baffles his mother that he would dive without certification. But she does not point a finger of blame at his friends.
"He was an adult," she said. "He knew what he was doing. The last thing he would want me to do is blame them."
Auletta's mother said he grew up in Dunedin surrounded by friends who also became firefighters. He loved the job and his colleagues. He recently had been accepted by the Tampa Fire Department, a job he was to start in March.
Auletta had been a firefighter and paramedic for 21/2 years in the Lealman Fire Department, which serves an area just north of St. Petersburg. Co-workers describe him as personable and professional.
"If you needed a paramedic to work on your mother, it'd be Kenny," said Lealman Fire Chief Richard Graham.
He was on the same shift as his fellow divers.
"They're real close, real tight-knit," Graham said. "These are the guys who are normally rescuing other people. Then they couldn't rescue their own crew member, and it's a devastation to them and our whole department."
The Lealman Fire Department received phone calls on Thursday from people who had received emergency care from the paramedic.
"They'll say, "I had a medical problem, and he treated me like I'm somebody,' " Graham said. "That means a lot to patients. Kenny is a guy who treats people like they're people."
Rescuers look for diver lost in gulf outing (February 22, 2001)