View Full Version : John Howell--Mystery Death at 514 Feet

Michael Smart
10-12-2013, 08:15 PM
Among the case histories, probably the most glaring example that the Diving Inspectorate of the Department of Energy had the wrong people investigating accidents involves the mysterious death of 25-year-old Sub Sea diver John Howell from Liverpool.

Howell had been a Royal Navy diver since the age of 16. The military trained him as a mixed gas diver and even commended him for preventing a deep‑sea diving accident.1 In August 1975, he resigned from the service to seek his fortune in the North Sea, and soon after, was hired by Sub Sea International. On January 10, 1976, Sub Sea sent him to the Western Pacesetter I, an oil rig engaged in drilling an appraisal well about 40 miles southwest of Thistle.

The day after Howell landed on board the rig, Diving Superintendent Jack Highley called a bounce dive and instructed Howell and Jim Ramble to go down and attach two guide wires to the Blow Out Preventer (BOP) which was standing on the seabed in 514 feet of water.2 The two men suited up, ran through bell checks, and at 2140 that evening they were lowered to 482 feet.3 Fifty minutes later, Highley started the dive clock when Howell began blowing down the bell.4

In the dive van, Supervisor Mick Tooke stood beside Highley. While Highley ran the dive, Tooke was busy decompressing two men from a previous dive.

At 2243, Ramble locked out and swam down to the BOP about 15 feet away. The job was not particularly difficult; just stab the ends of the guide wires into the guideposts and hammer a few bayonet fittings in place.

About twenty-five minutes into the dive, Highley interrupted Ramble and ordered him back to the bell because the hot-water machine was on the blink.5 Five minutes later, he radioed the bell and said he had fixed the problem. So Ramble locked out a second time, but soon after arriving at the BOP, he began to feel sick. Something was wrong; he didn’t know what, but he began to feel “very uneasy.”6 At this point, he told topside he was going back to the bell, and Highley said, “Okay, get moving.”7

In the bell, Ramble took off his gear and asked Howell if he would finish the job for him, and Howell agreed.8 As is customary, the two divers traded positions, with Howell donning the same gear Ramble had been using. At 2340, Howell disappeared through the trunking with Ramble still feeling “a bit drowsy.”

In the bell van, Highley was listening to the sound of Howell’s breathing through a pair of headphones when he heard a dramatic change in his breathing pattern. Sensing that something was wrong, he asked Howell if he was okay.9

Howell, now swimming to the job site, managed to utter, “No, I’m in trouble. I’m returning to the bell.” A moment later, Highley received Howell’s last transmission: “I’m foul...[fouled].”10

Well over six feet tall, Jack Highley was a quick‑thinking man who’d been around the diving industry a long time. In 1965, he was on board the first rig sent out into the North Sea,11 and now, eleven years later, he surmised that Howell had probably passed out. Turning to his gas panel, he quickly dialed up the supply regulator to overload Howell’s mask to prevent him from drowning.12 Then he ordered Ramble to go out and rescue his bell partner.13

Five hundred feet below, Ramble had been peering through one of the portholes to try to catch a glimpse of his partner, when he noticed that Howell had unexpectedly returned to the bell and was struggling unsuccessfully to cram himself inside the trunking. When Ramble took a closer look he noticed that Howell’s bailout bottle was caught under the lip of the trunking.14

Using his foot, he freed Howell, grabbed his harness, pulled him chest high into the trunking, then took off his free‑flowing mask and tossed it aside. Howell was unconscious, but he was still breathing.15 Ramble then reached up and unfurled the diver-recovery hoist from the top of the bell and repeatedly tried to lift his partner inside, but, because he was not powerfully built and because he was still feeling sick, he failed to do so. On several occasions he attempted to float Howell inside by partially flooding the bell,16 but that didn’t work either because Howell had become so rigid in the cold water that his legs were bent underneath the lip of the trunking.17

Twenty‑six minutes past midnight, the dive clock ran out. With Howell stuck in the trunking, Highley began to raise the open bell to its first decompression stop at 460 feet. Twelve minutes later, Howell stopped breathing.18 At this point, Ramble started giving mouth‑to‑mouth resuscitation and cardiac massage and continued to do so for the next sixteen minutes.19

Meanwhile, as the bell was being raised through its water stops, Ramble’s condition began to deteriorate. He started experiencing severe stomach cramps and had a strong desire to lie down and fall asleep.20 Suspecting that the gas supply was contaminated, Highley switched to a new supply on the control panel and flushed the bell with fresh gas, but this had no effect upon Ramble’s condition. “In fact,” Highley said later at the inquiry, ”he got steadily worse.”21

Ramble was not able to revive Howell. And over the next three and one half hours, Highley had to continuously talk to his remaining diver to keep him awake and alive.22

At 0147 the bell was brought to the 370‑foot stop. At 0200, Ramble was cast into darkness when the bell light suddenly burned out. At 0229, Highley discovered that Ramble had failed to change out the CO2 canister as ordered to ninety minutes earlier.23 The change out, which would have normally taken only a minute, dragged on for about thirty minutesbecause Ramble was still sick and racked by cramps.24

Just before 0300, Ramble tried again to hoist Howell inside, but was unsuccessful. Finally, at approximately 0425, Highley decided that if he didn’t get Ramble on board as soon as possible, he might lose him.25 He told Ramble to tie Howell’s body to the makeshift ladder propped against the trunking. It was one of the most difficult decisions he ever had to make, and for Ramble, it was the worst day of his life.

At 0505, the bell was recovered onto the sat system.26 Exhausted and feeling poisoned, Ramble had to be assisted out of the bell and put to bed by the two divers already in the system.27 In the days that followed, it would be determined that John Howell had died as a result of drowning.

The next day, a Department of Energy Diving Inspector was flown out to the accident scene. During his initial investigation inside the bell, the ex-Royal Navy Commander discovered a gas valve, which was normally supposed to be open, was in fact closed. It was a secondary valve located between the penetrator valve behind the inside hatch and the manifold valves which fed the divers’ umbilicals.28 The fact that this valve was in the closed position struck the inspector odd, and two weeks later he returned to the rig to try to determine why it was closed and why Howell got into trouble in the first place.29

Based upon an experiment he conducted with Supervisor Mick Tooke, the inspector ultimately came to the conclusion that, when Howell was exiting the bell, he “inadvertently” bumped the handle of the valve closed with his bailout bottle,30 then breathed down the remaining gas in his umbilical, which caused a pressure loss in his mask and allowed sea water to enter.

But according to Tooke, Howell could not have knocked the valve completely closed. Asked at the inquiry whether he was able to move the valve handle during the experiment, Tooke said, “You could move it a bit, to quarter shut or something like that, but that is about all.”31 The Commander, on the other hand, saw things differently, and later told the court he was “absolutely convinced” that he and Tooke had demonstrated it could be done.32

Still, the Commander knew his theory contained a fatal flaw. By his own calculation, Howell had “perhaps two or three breaths” in his gas hose before he locked out,33 and if he had bumped the valve closed, then it would have been impossible for him to exit the bell, swim part way to the job site, alert topside he was in trouble, then clamber back to the bell all on these few breaths. Realizing that Howell could not have done this, the inspector backpedaled and admitted on the witness stand that his theory could not be correct.34

Such an admission might have ended all the guesswork then and there, but no sooner had the Commander’s initial hypothesis buckled under the strains of reality than another was immediately produced like a rabbit out of a hat. The inspector was now convinced that the only way Howell could have drowned was if someone had closed the gas supply valve when he was out of the bell. Since it could not have been Howell, then it must have been Ramble. This was “the only possible conclusion” he could come up with, the Commander told the Court.35

But the inspector’s interpretation of what happened was at odds with the evidence on a number of key points. First, Superintendent Highley heard Howell breathing through his ear phones well beyond the point when Howell realized he was in trouble,36 something he could not have done if the crucial valve was closed. When one of the attorneys pointed this out to the inspector, he could offer no explanation for it.37

Second, the dive log clearly states that Howell was still breathing when Ramble took off his mask,38 which directly contradicts the inspector’s assertion that Howell had drowned in his mask before he was pulled into the trunking.

And third, when Ramble removed Howell’s mask, he said he tossed it to one side and recalls hearing it free flowing in the water‑filled trunking.39 Again, this could only be true if the supply valve was still open. Furthermore, Ramble’s testimony corroborates Highley’s evidence on another important point and explains why the Commander found the gas valve closed during his initial inspection of the bell after the accident: namely, when Highley realized that his diver had passed out in the water, he immediately overloaded the supply regulator from 375 psi to nearly 550 psi,40 which was more than enough pressure to overwhelm the demand valve in Howell’s mask and cause it to free flow. As Highley correctly testified at the inquiry, “the only way [Ramble] could shut that gas supply off [to the mask] was to turn the valve in the bell because he could turn off all the valves in the mask, and the regulator would still be overloading and pumping gas into the mask.”41

When the logic of this scenario was put to the inspector, he began grasping at straws. “That could be,” he replied. “This is a clue I don’t understand. I can’t understand. I wonder whether, when the mask was in the water, it wasn’t just bubbles coming up from trapped air . I am not sure whether [Ramble] was fully concentrating on watching a mask when trying to give artificial respiration.”42

That response was as inadequate as it was implausible and the lawyer for Sub Sea International quickly delivered a lethal blow to it. “How can there be trapped air in the mask if the man in the mask had drowned?”

“He would have taken the mask off when his head was out of the water, and any water that was in it would have dropped out,” the inspector replied.43

Again, that answer did nothing to solve the mystery of how a man could drown in a free flowing mask. The Crown produced an expert witness to say the mask was in no way defective,44 and that, only by a drop in pressure, could water enter it.45 In a free flowing mask this would be impossible.

The inquiry did, however, examine one other possible explanation for the death of John Howell. Gas contamination. Ramble’s sudden onset of drowsiness, his stomach cramps and his failure to respond appropriately to topside commands, led Jack Highley, Mick Tooke, and Jim Ramble to testify that the accident had all the earmarks of a corrupted gas supply.46 If this was indeed the case, Ramble could have taken the initial hit, returned to the bell before it did any further damage, with Howell then locking out to receive the lethal brunt.

But the connection between Ramble’s sudden illness and Howell passing out in the water seemed to have had no impact upon the Commander’s powers of deductive reasoning. When one of the attorneys asked if the two contiguous events were “just an enormous coincidence,” the inspector explained away the entire misfortune by speculating that Ramble’s symptoms were probably due to an “emotional” rather than physical origin caused by either working too hard underwater or being affected by the cold when his hot-water supply temporarily shut down.47

Here again, the inspector’s conclusions fell far outside the line of evidence given by Ramble who stated that his assignment that night did not require much physical effort,48 and that he had returned to the bell well before he became cold because Highley had forewarned him his hot-water supply was about to shut down.49

Asked whether he had closed his mind to the possibility of gas contamination, the inspector answered: “I cannot close my mind to anything, but I think it is unlikely as a result of the analysis which has been carried out.”50

When Highley was asked if he’d ever witnessed an accident caused by gas contamination before, he said, yes, that early in his career, a diver’s gas supply had been compromised with a substance called trichloroethylene, a highly toxic dry-cleaning agent that divers sometimes used to clean the interior of gas hoses.51

On board the [I]Pacesetter, the crew were not using trichloroethylene, but Freon, a refrigerant, which the inspector pointed out was non-toxic. But it is a well- known fact that certain agents which are non-toxic at surface pressure, can turn dangerously toxic at higher pressures. Breathing the normal amount of oxygen in air at surface pressure, for example, is not toxic, but feeding the diver the same mix at 500 feet is extremely dangerous. And experts point out that even if a substance is not actually toxic at low pressure, it may have a tendency to become narcotic at higher pressures. According to a British diving medical officer, Ramble’s symptoms (stomach cramps, drowsiness, failure to pay attention to topside commands) are “very common effects of toxicity, reflecting an irritant effect on the bowel and narcotic effects on the brain.”
In the end, the more probable explanation of gas contamination seemed to carry little weight in the courtroom that day, the effect of which was to leave Jim Ramble at the mercy of the Commander’s desultory theories which were apparently circulated among the attorneys and the sheriff prior to the proceedings. Indeed, even before Ramble uttered a single word on the witness stand, he was given “the caution” by the sheriff.

“You understand,” he said to Ramble, “there may be a suggestion that perhaps not only that you made a mistake but that you committed some crime or offense.” And then he proceeded to advise the witness that he need not answer any questions that might incriminate him.52

But Ramble had nothing to hide and answered all of the lawyers’ questions forthrightly and to the best of his recollection. That he was suspected of wrongdoing demonstrated the tremendous power and influence of the inspector’s opinion. The proceedings even exhibited overtones of a class‑conscious struggle for controlling the truth. On one side of the contest was an ex-Army grunt with no prefix to his name and no authoritative cachet who had been left with a mash of hazy memories about an experience that nearly took his life at 500 feet. On the other side was a man of distinction, a retired Naval Officer, who represented the personification of unquestionable integrity and expertise.

But the Commander was not a diving expert in any real sense of the word. This was a man who had no personal experience as a commercial diver and only his imagination to rely upon to explain a mystery that ultimately left Jim Ramble under a cloud of suspicion in a public venue. When his initial theory blew away like grains of sand in a windy desert, he quickly ginned up another—that Ramble, suffering from some presumed emotional impairment, unwittingly closed the crucial valve and caused the death of his partner. But it was all pure speculation based upon the discovery of a closed valve that was shut to stop Howell’s mask from free flowing. When this possibility was put to the inspector, he conceded that if Highley had over pressurized the gas line, Ramble “could have turned it off.”53

Unfortunately, this concession came too late for Ramble who had already been forced to endure the inspector’s allegations through a series of rigorous, and sometimes hostile, cross‑examinations. What damage this had upon his mind and career after the inquiry is unknown.

Without more information no one can say with certainty why John Howell died on the night of January 11, 1976. But one thing is clear; the man who lost his life did not “inadvertently” cause his own demise, and the man who barely escaped with his life did not cause the death of his partner. And yet, sadly, what survives today in government archives, as part of the official picture, is not the lamentable story the diving inspector finally settled upon at the inquiry, but the one he originally dreamed up—the one that cannot be correct—where Howell bumped his own gas valve closed.54

1 Howell FAI (Fatal Accident Inquiry Transcript), p. 6.
2 Howell FAI, p. 66.
3 Howell FAI, p. 180.
4 Howell FAI, p. 171.
5 Howell FAI, p. 73, 181.
6 Howell FAI, p. 74.
7 Howell FAI, p. 182.
8 Howell FAI, p. 102.
9 Howell FAI, p. 184.
10 Howell FAI, p. 184.
11 Howell FAI, p. 206.
12 Howell FAI, p. 194, 199.
13 Howell FAI, p. 184.
14 Howell FAI, p. 79.
15 Howell FAI, p. 80, 165.
16 Howell FAI, p. 83.
17 Howell FAI, p. 86, 108.
18 Howell FAI, p. 165.
19 Howell FAI, p. 86, 166.
20 Howell FAI, p. 83, 167.
21 Howell FAI, p. 187.
22 Howell FAI, p. 186-187.
23 Howell FAI, p. 165, 168.
24 Howell FAI, p. 128.
25 Howell FAI, p. 188.
26 Howell FAI, p. 172.
27 Howell FAI, p. 198.
28 Howell FAI, p. 89-91.
29 Howell FAI, p. 215.
30 Howell FAI, p. 216.
31 Howell FAI, p. 170.
32 Howell FAI, p. 215.
33 Howell FAI, p. 216-217.
34 Howell FAI, p. 216.
35 Howell FAI, p. 216, 219.
36 Howell FAI, p. 195.
37 Howell FAI, p. 225.
38 Howell FAI, p. 164-165.
39 Howell FAI, p. 84, 118-119.
40 Howell FAI, p. 208.
41 Howell FAI, p. 194.
42 Howell FAI, p. 224.
43 Howell FAI, p. 225.
44 Howell FAI, p. 131,146, 149.
45 Howell FAI, p. 137-138.
46 Howell FAI, p. 121,187, 190.
47 Howell FAI, p. 223.
48 Howell FAI, p. 73, 78.
49 Howell FAI, p. 74.
50 Howell FAI, p. 223.
51 Howell FAI, p. 206.
52 Howell FAI, p. 63.
53 Howell FAI, p. 220.
54 Health and Safety records, June 23, 2000; also retold in Jackie Warner, and Fred Park, Requiem for a Diver, p. 50; and W. G. Carson, The Other Price of Britain’s Oil, p. 67.

12-12-2013, 09:14 PM
That's shocking, just because he's a decorated naval veteran doesn't give him the right to comment on matters he knows nothing about and almost incarcerate an innocent man for manslaughter. Why was the more believable theory disregarded?

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Michael Smart
12-12-2013, 11:37 PM
That's shocking, just because he's a decorated naval veteran doesn't give him the right to comment on matters he knows nothing about and almost incarcerate an innocent man for manslaughter. Why was the more believable theory disregarded?

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During the latter half of the 1970s the Diving Inspectorate of the Department of Energy (DOE) was manned primarily by a group of ex-Royal Navy Commanders. In 1974 there was only one Chief Inspector charged with overseeing all diving operations within the British sector of the North Sea, an area covering 102,177 square miles, or about half the size of France. By August 1979, there were four inspectors: three of which were ex-Royal Navy Commanders while the fourth had gained his commercial experience outside the North Sea. None of these men had any practical saturation diving experience.

Regarding the Howell case: when John Howell died, this Commander, working for the DOE, was sent out to investigate the fatality. He arrived at his conclusions, then submitted a report to his office and later met with the Aberdeen Procurator Fiscal (prosecutor) to present his findings, because, in Scotland all offshore accidents which result in any “sudden and suspicious deaths” must be investigated by a Public Inquiry process called a Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI), which is conducted by the Procurator Fiscal.

When the Commander presented his theories to the Fiscal in Aberdeen, he in turn consulted with the Sheriff (presiding judge) of the FAI, which resulted in Jim Ramble coming “into the frame” as possibly causing the death of John Howell by foul play, based upon the Commander’s report. The Sheriff and the Fiscal, through no fault of their own, were merely relying upon the Commander as their expert witness in the matter. This forced the Sheriff to give Ramble the “Caution” in Court in order to protect his rights against self-incrimination.

One also has to take into account, that between the two witnesses, working-class Jim Ramble and the Royal Navy Commander, it’s more likely that the Court would lean towards the Commander’s version of the accident, being the State’s “expert” witness, and a person of rank and stature.