An electronic device that warns divers of diminishing air supplies would have benefitted Chicago Fire Department diver Juan Bucio the night he tried to rescue a boater who’d fallen in the Chicago River, according to a new report.
Bucio ran out of air and failed to switch to a backup supply in May of 2018.
He’d just surfaced and signaled he was OK before pulling the mask off a fellow diver and disappearing below the water.
Among the key recommendations in the report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health was that divers use dive computer technology that provides audio and visual air level alerts.
“An audible alarm may have helped the diver know his air pressure without having to read a gauge in near-zero visibility water using a flashlight,” the report states. “It is unclear if the diver was able to read the gauge correctly in the zero-visibility water.”
The Chicago Fire Department does not use dive computers, the report states.
A fire department spokesman did not immediately return a message seeking comment.
In addition to a lack of air from his depleted tank, an autopsy found a rare heart condition that can commonly go unnoticed until a major health event was a key factor in his death.
Bucio was “distressed due to the heart condition,” a Cook County medical examiner’s spokeswoman said after his autopsy.
The NIOSH report, which is dated June 28 but was released Wednesday, also states that communication between fire and police marine units at the scene was lacking and could have benefited from costly but effective military-grade equipment.
“At the incident scene, the communication between the fire and police marine units took place by either face-to-face communications or a patch-through dispatch. No interoperability occurred with the radios at the incident scene. This impacts real-time communications and the command structure,” the report stated.
Communications between divers and boats were also unreliable, it said.
“Better communications are needed between the fire and police marine units. They need to ensure they have the proper equipment (radios, etc.) and a better real-time understanding of the plan and operational situation,” according to the report.
The moment Bucio went under the water was caught on video by WBBM-TV (Channel 2), showing confusion in the moments before fellow divers located him.
“During the interview process, several interviewees had mentioned that the wireless communications equipment used by Fire and Police Marine Units was subpar. The communications between divers and the boats were unreliable,” the report states.
Bucio, a 46-year-old firefighter who specialized in diving, lost contact with his partner as they attempted to rescue 28-year-old Alberto Lopez, who fell overboard while boating with friends in the river’s South Branch.
Lopez’s body was found in the river four days later by his friends.
Bucio was recovered from a depth of 17 to 19 feet, about 10 to 15 minutes after sinking. His diving equipment was intact, his mask sealed on his face.
Paramedics performed CPR but Bucio was “pulseless” on the way to Stroger Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The review of Bucio’s diving equipment showed it appeared “used but well maintained” and “functioned as designed.”