the action or fact of dying or being killed; the end of the life of a
ORIGIN Old English dēath, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch doodand German Tod, also to die 1 .
Death in Mexico. As a cave diver death was always a risk we took. We knew that we could die cave diving. But with the experience, training and equipment to us it was an acceptable risk. Driving on the old highway was also a risk. Death was just always risk in day to day life in Mexico at the time. Living in Mexico I have had several personal experiences with death. I share these, at times with a sense of black humor, and with all due respect to the families and the ones who lost their lives.
Our first experience with death was an open water diving accident. Gary was manager of the Mike Madden's Cedam Dive Center at the time. There was a young dive instructor who was working at the dive shop. This young man lived just down the street from us. The news of town was that he had recently gotten his Mayan girlfriend pregnant. He came from a conservative family in the US. One day he had gone out diving, and did not return. Gary and others organized boats to go look for him and/or his equipment. They ran search patterns. He was never found, nor was his equipment. Theories were that it was oxygen toxicity which causes black outs if you go too deep or a possible suicide. Rumors spread that he swam down the coast, gotten out and disappeared. Disappearing in Mexico and Central America is not unheard of and easy to do. Although he is probably dead, I secretly hope he is alive somewhere. I did hear his girlfriend had a healthy baby.
Gary and I were some of the few people on the coast who were trained in "body recovery" for cave diving. Very few divers have ever died while following protocols and using equipment configurations recognized as acceptable by the cave diving community. However sometimes accidents happen. There was one incident where Gary and I were called along with a few others to look for two trained cave divers who did not return from a cave dive in the Maya Blue cave system located South of Tulum. By the time we had gotten word, our gear together, these divers either had exited out of another cenote or had expired. Too much time had gone by. We geared up, and headed into the cave to do a job, a body recovery. We had heard of what their dive plan was, and there was a possibility that they had gotten lost. While swimming into the cave we looked for signs of silt in the water, marks in the silt cave floor or discarded gear. We did not find any gear but we did find a silty area, and pinned to the top of the cave by their own buoyancy we found our missing divers. They had gotten lost, and in the their efforts to find the exit had run out of air. When recovering someone you have a slate and you make notes. What does the pressure gauge on their tanks read, is all their equipment in place, mask on, mask off, all the little details of how we found them. Because their tanks were empty they had floated to the ceiling of the cave. First task is to get the body so we can swim it through the cave and out safely. With the effects of rigger setting in, we had to take weight-belt webbing and cinch the legs together, get the arms next to the body because we did not want to get the body tangled up in the guideline as we swam out. We also used lead weights to off set the buoyancy issues. Now while all of this is going on, I am not thinking "oh this is so and so", "a dead guy", my mind is focused on the task at hand which is to get the body out of the cave. One thing I will never forget is one of the guy we swam out. I was guiding and towing from the front, Gary pushing from the feet, looking back occasionally at Gary and I would look at this person's mask and eyes. His face and mask haunted my mind for days. Even today I have clear vision of bringing him out. Once we arrived at the mouth of the cave, we left the body just inside of the cave, and other divers worked on bringing bodies out of the mouth of the cave and water. This was not a scene I wanted to see, so I returned to the truck to strip my gear and headed home.
Death on Highway 307. Let me paint a picture of the old highway. Highway 307 was the equivalent of a rural road in the US. No street lights, no fences along the road, and off the edge of the highway was a steep drop from where the road had been built up, jungle for the most part on both sides. There was no shoulder. If you did broke down on the highway, you cut branches from a tree or shrub, and placed them behind the vehicle in piles 20 yards back or so, to indicate that there was a stopped vehicle ahead. The highway was dangerous, full of old trucks, cars and anything on four wheels that would run. On full moons it was not uncommon for people to even drive with their lights off. One late afternoon my friend Dan was driving home from Cancun. A drive he made all the time. A drive we all made all the time. But this one particular afternoon, Dan was driving with one of his employees was in the passenger seat, and he rounded a curve and there was a cow in the road. He could not avoid it, it came through the windshield and killed him. Dan was one of the most wonderful guys on the coast I ever knew. What a freak accident but it could have been any of us. Fencing along the highway now is a good thing, to keep livestock in. Karen his wife, is still in Tulum. She is a dear friend.
This next story really you have to look at the humor of it all...
My friend Harry was a cave diver from Dallas. We had been friends and dove with him for years down here. Harry was a big man, with a big heart and a big sense of humor. Harry was on vacation with his friend Jack. It was US Labor Day weekend. Harry and Jack were cave diving together. They had been coming down to the coast for years to dive, and both were very experienced cave divers. On their return to the entrance from a dive, Harry had a heart attack in the cave. Jack noticed that Harry was not responding but had his hand on the line. Jack assisted Harry to the mouth of the cave, I was told that Harry even had the sense to turn his cave light off when he reached day light, but he died on the surface. Gary and I were notified. Harry's wife Linda was coming in from Dallas. Linda is half Mexican, so she was familiar with the culture, the nuances of Mexico, cave diving and the area. We picked up Linda and Harry's step daughter at the Cancun Airport.
From the airport we went to mortuary. This "funeral parlor" consisted of a cinder block building about 10 meters wide. As you walked in there were new coffins stacked three high on the left, on the right were some chairs, and a desk. A room off to the side was a viewing room where a Mexican family were viewing their loved one in a coffin. Linda wanted to take Harry back to the US. They told her it would be about $4,000 US for their service, and they would put him in a casket, box it up for shipping to the US. Linda paid with Mastercard. Luckily Linda received an envelop with the rings and necklace that Harry had been wearing, which I was actually surprised were not taken from the body somewhere along the line. We all then went in the back to see him. They asked me if I had clothes that we wanted Harry put in, and I had said no, a body bag was fine. A funeral director in Dallas was waiting. Linda and I then went to file the necessary paperwork with appropriate Mexican officials that she was taking the body. To get this done on a Sunday was surprising. The problem was we needed permission from the US Consulate for Harry to leave Mexico. Being a US holiday weekend the office was closed for a three days , so Tuesday would be the first opportunity to get the body shipped out on American Airlines.
The plan was to meet at the "funeral parlor" Tuesday morning. That morning, I took Linda and her daughter with me to go to the funeral parlor, to follow the truck to the airport and get them all on a flight bound for Dallas now that all the paperwork was in place. At the parlor we saw a big box one end marked "head", the other "feet" loaded into a truck. We start driving in tandem for the airport. All of us girls, although a somber occasion, where dealing with everything well. But moods started to change when the truck with the body broke down. The truck pulled over near what is now the Mayan Palace. The driver throws open the hood of the truck. Me in my take charge mode, gets out and asks him, "Oye, que paso?" Hey, what happened?. He said the engine was running hot. I asked if we needed water for the radiator, was there a broken fan belt, etc. He called on his cell phone to the funeral parlor. He said another truck was coming. I went back to my truck, and we chuckled commenting Harry was in Heaven laughing at the situation in Mexico with a broken down truck on the side of the road with him in it. Time passed... ticking away getting closer to flight time. What humor we had became nervousness to make the flight. Another truck came, but it was not big enough to transport the box. We were told to follow the overheated vehicle to Puerto Morelos. We did, driving about 35 miles an hour. Once in Puerto Morelos we pulled off on side road where another truck was waiting. So now, we had to move the box with Harry from one truck to another. Three guys, me, the widow and the step daughter, all taking position on the side of the box, lifting it up as best we could and carrying it into the other truck! Only in Mexico.
Linda made the flight with the box in cargo. I kissed her good bye and apologized we would not be in Dallas for the funeral. Linda and I spoke a couple days later, as she needed me to go to the embassy to get Harry's passport. I asked her how she was doing and how things were going, figuring things had gotten better once they had touched down in the Lone Star State. Well...she told me there had been a bit of a problem. Once the flight landed, all the passengers were waiting forever a the carousel for their luggage. She managed to get her luggage but many passengers did not. The reason being is that the body had leaked in-flight in the cargo hold and on some of the luggage, so HAZMAT had to come in. The body had not been embalmed properly. The plane sat on the tarmac for days while it was cleaned. The funeral director in Dallas got the box with the body to prep it for the funeral, they found in the pine box that my big friend Harry had been put into a used Mayan-size (small/short) coffin! With a crowbar, they got Harry out, and after had a closed casket ceremony. I told Linda to call Mastercard and charge back. I am not sure she ever did. Linda being the strong wonderful woman that she is, although upset with the loss of her husband, took the turn of events in stride, and we morbidly laughed over the entire incident. She's a great lady. I hope one day when I pass those pearly gates that I can sip a Sambuca with Harry, his favorite after dinner drink, there must be a coffee bean in it heated by a open flame and laugh together with over all of this.
Moral of the story: If I die in Mexico, have me cremated please.
As I put the finishing touches on this installation of my life in Mexico, I gaze out on Caribbean Sea from the roof of my house. With a rum in hand I toast to the souls who I have mentioned and all the characters who have passed who have added color to the fabric of my life here. Salud!