We will never know why minister died in diving accident, expert tells inquest
The death of a hospital chaplain in a diving accident can never be fully explained because a computer he was wearing at the time was never recovered, an expert has told his inquest.
Rev Stewart Jones (56) died off the Co Donegal coast on July 12 last year. He was a minister in Donemana, Co Tyrone, and the Presbyterian chaplain at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry.
Rev Jones was an experienced diver and diving instructor.
Dublin-based Rory Golden, the first Irishman to dive to view the wreckage of the Titanic, was called as an expert witness at the coroner's inquest at Sligo Court House yesterday. He said he examined the equipment used by Rev Jones and found it acceptable.
However, a computer worn by the minister - the diving equivalent of a plane's black box - was never recovered, he said.
Without it, he added, it was impossible to give an accurate account of what happened.
In a statement read to the inquest, Rev Stewart's dive partner, Aaron Buick (24) from Portrush, Co Antrim, said they had initially decided against a dive at St John's Point because of poor conditions. However, they returned later when they calmed.
They checked each other's equipment and Mr Buick checked the minister's 'Pony Bottle' - the back-up air cylinder. But after they had dived to 23 metres in a 15-minute period, Rev Jones signalled to him to return to the surface.
"It was quite sickening in the water due to the movement of the waves above. At this point Stewart changed from his standard bottle to his Pony Bottle. I had to assist him doing this as he was holding on to the seaweed and struggling to reach the regulator of the Pony Bottle," said Mr Buick.
Soon afterwards the minister gave a hand signal to say he was in trouble.
"I hung on to him as he was moving about in the swell. About one minute later he signalled the 'up' sign. I checked my dive computer to see how long I had left. It was showing less than one minute… Stewart was already on the way up."
The young diver said he followed Rev Jones to the surface and found him distressed and unable to speak. They were also 400m away from where they thought they should have been.
The witness said Rev Jones tried to snorkel but couldn't, and he had to tow him.
"I had to stop every 15 to 20 seconds as he was spitting out his regulator and swallowing water as the waves broke over us," he said.
"I soon realised he was getting worse as he was struggling and he was taking in a lot of water. At one stage he pushed me away and said 'leave me'. I just grabbed him, put him on his back and swam as hard as I could."
They managed to reach rocks and the two men were sent crashing onto them by the waves.
Local people spotting the two raised the alarm, with Coast Guard volunteers attempting CPR, but Rev Jones died later at Sligo Regional Hospital.
Pathologist Dr Clive Kilgallen said he had died by drowning.
He said it was possible that the minister had been suffering from an irregular heartbeat, had suffered chest pains and this may have contributed to the accident.
Coroner Eamon MacGowan recorded a verdict of accidental death by drowning and told Rev Jones' widow Patricia: "He was a man who contributed so much to the lives of others and at 56 was taken far too young."