Navy SEAL drownings prompt new safety rules

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

A breath-holding exercise by two members of the military went tragically wrong, and they had been warned not to do it.

That’s the finding of a Navy investigation into the drowning deaths of two Navy SEALs — one from Livonia — on base in Little Creek/Fort Story, Virginia.

Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Brett Allen Marihugh, 34, of Livonia died April 24. A group of trainees found him and Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Seth Cody Lewis of Queens, New York, at the bottom of a combat training pool. Lewis also died.

A Navy investigation, obtained through an open-records request by The Detroit News, ruled out misconduct by the SEALs and said breath-holding should only take place in a controlled setting under the supervision of trainers or, if essential, during a mission. Marihugh and Lewis were conducting an off-hours workout at the pool by themselves.

“Our commitment to be the best and push ourselves to ever higher levels of proficiency must be tempered by safety compliance that is often learned from a past tragedy like this one,” Rear Admiral B.L. Losey, commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, wrote in an Aug. 14 letter accompanying the investigation. “Overconfidence is an ever-present risk factor.”

The report suggests the accidental drownings resulted from what’s known in the diving community as shallow-water blackout, which occurs when a swimmer loses consciousness underwater due to a severe lack of oxygen to the brain (hypoxia) as a result of prolonged breath-holding.

In the letter, Losey said the Navy will now require a lifeguard or first-class swimmer to be present on deck at Naval Special Warfare pools for all conditioning swims other than laps. Signs also are be posted in pool facilities expressly prohibiting breath-holding.

Losey ordered a review by Tuesday of all training requiring breath-holding for compliance with safety standards, and for inspections at pool facilities to ensure the proper posting of emergency-response plans and equipment.

“Our condolences remain with SO1 Brett Marihugh and SO1 Seth Lewis’s family, friends and teammates,” Lt. j.g. Jacqueline Maxwell, spokeswoman for the Naval Special Warfare Group TWO, said in a statement.

“Corrective safety measures were immediately put in place to prevent this type of incident from happening again.”

Maxwell would not say whether the specific recommendations outlined in the report had been implemented.

What happened

Witnesses interviewed by investigators said they observed Marihugh and Lewis working out at the combat training pool on the afternoon of April 24.

A group of 10 trainees were doing drills in the lap lanes. At the same time, the pair was doing push-ups and other calisthenics on the deck, and walking across the pool bottom pushing 10-pound diving bricks.

The pool manager noticed a 30-pound, sand-filled duffel bag that Marihugh and Lewis brought with them and said he reminded the pair, “Don’t do any breath-holding, boys.”

As the trainees were wrapping up an hour later, a couple of them stopped by the edge of the pool to direct Marihugh and Lewis where to return the diving bricks. The pair nodded in acknowledgment, as they were timing themselves to see how long they could hold their breaths, facing the clock on the pool deck.

About 15 minutes later, three trainees returned to the deck to collect trash and noticed Marihugh and Lewis at the bottom of the pool. The men were not moving, and the 10-pound diving bricks were next to their torsos. Lewis was on his back with an arm bent toward his face, as if checking his watch.

The trainees splashed the surface of the water and slapped the side of the pool. When the two men didn’t respond, the trainees pulled off shoes and clothes and dove in, pulling the unconscious men from the water.

They performed CPR until paramedics arrived. Marihugh and Lewis were pronounced dead at local hospitals a short time later.

Two-man rule

Navy SEALs can hold their breath underwater for two to three minutes or more. Breath-holding drills are typically used to condition a swimmer or diver and to build confidence when going through high-surf conditions at night, said Brandon Webb, a former Navy SEAL and best-selling author of the book “Among Heroes.”

“It’s extremely rare for this to happen and very unfortunate to lose two amazing men like this,” Webb said of the drownings.

Marihigh served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1999 to 2003, joining the Navy in 2006. He completed Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training in Coronado, California, in October 2007 and proceeded to advanced training.

He was a field medic, and the decorations he earned include the Bronze Star, Joint Service Achievement Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, and the Navy/Marine Corps Commendation Medal with Combat V in support of the Global War on Terrorism.

The Navy’s “two-man rule” — training with a buddy — is supposed to reduce risk because each swimmer is aware of the other’s activities and can render aid if needed; however, a swim buddy can’t reduce the risk inherent in breath-holding, especially if participating himself, Losey noted.

“Breath-holding was negligent in this case but falls short of reckless disregard for foreseeable consequences because the two-man rule was in effect,” Losey wrote. “As such, their deaths were not due to misconduct.”

Losey says the Navy’s task now is to improve safety guidance and raise awareness about the possibility that both swim buddies are at risk for shallow-water blackout when simultaneously breath-holding.

Dr. Brad Uren, an emergency physician at the University of Michigan, said underwater blackouts typically occur after a swimmer hyperventilates — either voluntarily or due to exertion — which artificially lowers carbon-dioxide levels in the blood stream, delaying the body’s trigger to breathe.

“If you breathe rapidly like that, you get rid of carbon dioxide, but you can’t carry any more oxygen than is already in the air,” Uren said. “Then you go underwater, and your body doesn’t hit that point where you have to get up to the surface to breathe.”

After the swimmer loses consciousness, the body automatically takes a breath and can drown without immediate rescue.

“When you talk to someone who’s survived hypoxic episode, they say they felt nothing, or even a euphoric feeling. The next thing they know, they woke up on the deck,” said Shawn P. DeRosa, director of aquatics and safety officer for campus recreation at Pennsylvania State University.

“That’s why you need a safety lookout. When you’re both doing the activity, it’s not a safety lookout.”

Mike Marihugh of Livonia said his son’s death was a freak accident that happened because SEAL training, by nature, is high risk.

“These guys train to win wars, and they’re going to train to the limit. They’re a unique breed,” Marihugh said.

“They died, both Navy SEALS, doing what they loved doing. And I’ve always felt good about that.”

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