The Monroe County medical examiner will await the results of further studies before determining what caused the death of a diver Tuesday who was stationed at the Aquarius Reef Base under the waters of Key Largo.
"It may be a few weeks before we know what happened," Dr. E. Hunt Scheurman said Wednesday, 24 hours after Dewey Smith, 36, was pronounced dead. An autopsy was conducted Wednesday morning.
Since 2007, Smith had been a diver with Aquarius, an undersea research station owned by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and operated by the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Aquarius sits in 62 feet of water at Conch Reef, four miles off the coast, and is used for experiments on the coral reefs and other local undersea habitat, as well as for training astronauts and U.S. military personnel.
During this mission, Smith had been under the sea for a couple of days, training members of the Navy in saturation diving -- a technique that allows people to spend days or weeks at a time in the depths of the ocean. He also was setting the stage for upcoming scientific studies in the Conch Reef research area.
On Tuesday, he was helping the Aquarius team set out lines and anchoring equipment to be used in upcoming studies on coral reef restoration and ocean acidification, one cause of reef die-off. He had just notified colleagues Bill Dodd and Corey Seymour that he was going to swim the 300 feet back to Aquarius when they realized he was lying on the ocean floor, not moving, university spokeswoman Cindy Lawson said. Dodd and Seymour, and later two Navy physicians who returned to Aquarius after ascending from a dive earlier in the day, made unsuccessful attempts to resuscitate Smith.
On Wednesday, Smith's sister, Lisa Neuenfeldt, who lives in Panama City where they grew up, said working with the Aquarius program had been the chance of a lifetime for her brother. As a former Navy man himself, he especially enjoyed the joint Aquarius missions with the military. He still would get excited every time he headed down to the reef base, she said.
"I never saw him be so happy," Neuenfeldt said. "He just brought a lot of joy into our family and into the life of anyone he even knew for just a moment."
Indeed, in an online profile posted on the Aquarius Web site, Smith himself wrote that he became hooked on diving the very first time he took a scuba class.
Condolences for Smith's family have streamed in from officials involved with the Aquarius program.
In an announcement to university faculty and staff, Chancellor Rosemary DePaolo said she is "deeply saddened" by Smith's death.
NOAA issued a press release quoting Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, an undersecretary of commerce.
"[Smith's] many friends at NOAA miss him and we share in the grief that follows his loss," Lubchenco said.
Florida Keys U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also issued a statement of condolence.
As the search for the cause of the tragedy continues, investigators will study the rebreather diving apparatus Smith was using at the time of his death, the medical examiner said.
Rebreathers scrub carbon dioxide from exhaled air and then recirculate it, allowing for longer-lasting and lighter tanks.
Aquarius has been conducting missions off Key Largo since 1993. Smith's death is the first associated with the program.