Kevin Piper Jr. was having a great time fishing and diving with his father and two friends Sunday, but excitement at the prospect of spearing a big grouper apparently overcame caution. Out of breath with an empty scuba tank, the 16-year-old shot to the surface without decompressing.
Piper was an incoming senior at Key West High School and worked at the Publix in Key West, where his father is manager. On Wednesday, family members described him as a fun-loving and energetic teen who loved the ocean.
"Kevin was not the kind of kid to sit and play video games," said his mother, Wendy. "He always had to be out doing something. He was very outgoing and active, with a beautiful smile. He had such a radiant smile."
Piper had gone rod fishing near Maryland Shoal on Sunday with his namesake father; friend Zane Osborn, 17, of Big Coppitt Key; and Robert Pippin Jr., 28, of Cudjoe Key, according to his father. After they had caught their limit of yellowtail snapper, Piper Jr., Osborn and Pippin decided to spearfish with scuba tanks for other species. They were having a good day, his father recalled; his son came back with a mackerel on his first dive.
Based on how much anchor line he had on the 25-foot center console boat, Piper Sr. estimated they were anchored in 75 feet to 110 feet of water. Either Osborn or Pippin mentioned seeing a big black grouper after they surfaced from their first dive, Piper Sr. said.
"I know my son and he's a competitive kid," he said. "He wanted to get that grouper. I think he lost sight of how much air he had left."
Piper Jr., who was certified as an open water diver about 1½ years ago, dove again to search for the grouper, with Osborn free-diving above him.
Witnesses' statements cited in a Monroe County Sheriff's Office report indicate that Piper Jr. ran out of air and shot to the surface. Osborn, watching from above, reportedly tried to tell him with hand signals to slow his ascent, but it was too late.
"He went too deep for too long," his father said. "He didn't have time to do what you're supposed to do, but he was out of breath. He got to the surface and told Zane he felt funny -- and then immediately blacked out."
They rushed him to a KOA campground on Sugarloaf Key, where paramedics and deputies were waiting. Unconscious but breathing, Piper Jr. was taken to Lower Keys Medical Center, then flown to Mercy Hospital in Miami, where there is a hyperbaric chamber, his mother said.
The family, which was making funeral arrangements Wednesday, requested memorial donations be made to the Divers Alert Network. The family's hope is that all Keys hospitals will have hyperbaric chambers one day. Only Mariners Hospital in Tavernier is equipped with one now.
"We're the diving capital of the world, but we really need a chamber here," Piper Sr. said. "I hope that this tragedy will help make that possible."
Piper Jr. also was an avid off-road motorcycle racer who loved motocross.
"He didn't like to sit still," his mother said. "Every time he came through the front door he would run up and give me a big hug. He was such a loving and caring kid."
News of his death spread quickly at Key West High School Wednesday, and coach Judd Wise let summer school students who knew the teen go home early.
Wise had been his health instructor last year.
"He was funny and energetic as a kid can be," the coach said. "He had a great sense of humor and was always smiling. That's what's so hard for the kids today, and all of us, really -- you never expect the unexpected. Whenever something like this happens, it never gets any easier for the students or for the staff."
What role decompression sickness or an embolism may have played in Piper Jr.'s death is still under investigation, said sheriff's spokeswoman Deputy Becky Herrin.
Piper Jr. also is survived by a 14-year-old sister, Krystal Piper.