Diver Zachary Yarwood’s training death: Defence Force fined $288,000

The New Zealand Defence Force has been fined more than $288,000 for exposing six divers to risk of death or serious injury during a dive that claimed the life of Zachary Yarwood.

The fine was handed down in the Auckland District Court today, after the fatal dive at the Devonport Naval Base in March last year.

The Navy able communications technician had become unresponsive during a training exercise and later died in hospital. He was just 23.

NZDF failed to ensure that divers were effectively supervised during training and did not have the correct number of overseeing staff present, a court has found.

It also failed to ensure that all divers taking part, including instructors, had valid Certificates of Competence for diving, the court heard.

Endurance week

In March 2019, the trainees were taking part in a course known as “Able Diver Course – Mine Warfare”.

The 25th marked the start of “Endurance Week” in which the aim was to test ability under controlled pressure and sustained fatigue.

That day, the trainees had already completed two dives, totalling more than six hours underwater, before starting the night-time dive.

The fatal dive

Jackstay lines ran across the seabed, perpendicular to the wharf, to create two spaces either side of a pontoon where two overseeing staff were.

“There should have been four supervisory staff present, there were only two,” Judge Eddie Paul said.

The divers were working in two groups of three, one on either side of the pontoon.

Two divers in each team would hold an end of the snag line each and would pull it along as they moved up and down the Jackstay lines.

The third diver was roving in the middle, swimming along the snagline, freeing it if needed. Yarwood was the roving diver in his group.

Each diver’s position was marked by an attached surface float, made visible in the dark water by glow sticks.

About 90 minutes in, a float belonging to a diver in the other group got caught on a boat.

At this time it was unlikely anybody was monitoring Yarwood’s group, Judge Paul said.

All trainees were called to surface.

However, as Yarwood’s teammate swam across the snag line to regroup before surfacing he found the 23-year-old face down and unresponsive.

The teammate undertook a emergency drill on Yarwood’s dive set, signalled for help and removed his weight belt so they could both surface.

Yarwood died later in hospital of oxygen deprivation.

The WorkSafe investigation found that the trainee divers were doing a gas switch trick – unknown to NZDF – as it allowed them to dive longer.

It was a trick that exposed them to the risk of hypoxia, the court heard.

According to court documents, a medical expert later opined the trick was “extraordinarily dangerous” and was the “only plausible cause of the event”.

Later observations suggested Yarwood was doing this trick doing the dive, the court heard.

While the Defence Force’s failings gave rise to risk, they did not cause Yarwood’s death in that they were not a “substantial or operative cause” of him becoming hypoxic, according to court documents.

WorkSafe prosecutor Ben Finn said NZDF had been carrying out an inherently high-risk activity, involving many trainees in offending that occurred multiple times that day.

NZDF had not been following its own specific healthy and safety guidance, he said.

“It should be held accountable for cutting corners in such a high-risk area as this.”

Defence lawyer Samantha Turner said NZDF was very open about its remorse for what had occurred and had pleaded guilty early.

They were not “cavalier in their approach to training” or in any way trying to cut corners, the risks were known in a way that had become normalised.

The court heard they had recognised the risk and had tried to manage it in other ways, like ensuring the divers were all fit.

Judge Paul fined NZDF $288,750 and ordered them to pay court costs of $2629.

Navy 'let Zach down'

Emily Parr told the court she had not just lost her fiance that day, but also her best friend.

“My worst fear was losing Zach, he knew this and reassured me he would be okay.”

She recalled asking him what would happen if he ever lost consciousness during a dive and he had replied he would be pulled to the top by others.

“Absolutely no one was there for Zach that night.”

It made her feel sick knowing it was possible he might have pulled his line five times for help and nobody saw it, she said.

The Court of Inquiry showed several reasons the dive should never have gone ahead, she said.

“Knowing Zach’s death could have been so easily avoided is something I really struggle with.”

She said she felt lost without him.

“No words can describe the grief, pain and suffering I feel.

“The Navy have let me down, and honestly, ruined my life.

“But more importantly, you let Zach down.”

Yarwood’s mother Liz wanted to speak in court today to fight for justice.

She said she was still incredibly angry at the Navy and also at WorkSafe for not laying a higher charge.

She had dedicated her life to raising her boys.

Yarwood had excelled through school in maths, physics and sports, she said.

“I taught him to reach for the stars and never give up. I feel really guilty saying that now.”

She was proud when he joined the Navy and, then just 17, the promising young man had pretty much every pathway open to him.

She now struggled with the knowledge that not all those involved in the dive had the right qualifications, she said.

“I have reoccurring dreams of what happened that night, him lying there on the bottom of the seabed.”

How devastating that he was left to die while simply training, she said.

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