Filmmaker’s family sues Keys dive operator and Fort Lauderdale instructor

Sandy and Brian Stewart discuss their son Rob’s Jan. 31 diving death at a March 28 press conference at their attorney’s Coral Gables office.
Sandy and Brian Stewart discuss their son Rob’s Jan. 31 diving death at a March 28 press conference at their attorney’s Coral Gables office.

Canadian conservationist and filmmaker Rob Stewart died Jan. 31 off Islamorada after surfacing from his third 230-feet dive in one day retrieving a $15 grappling hook, his family says.

Stewart’s family on Tuesday filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Broward County Circuit Court demanding a jury trial against a Fort Lauderdale-based scuba diving equipment company, Add Helium LLC, its owners and Key Largo’s Horizon Dive Adventures.

The family held a press conference Tuesday in Coral Gables announcing the legal action. Stewart’s family seeks unspecified compensation for damages suffered as a result of their son’s death.

Attorneys for the defendants did not return requests for comment.

Horizon provided the Pisces dive boat and crew that took Stewart out to the Queen of Nassau wreck about 6 miles off Islamorada where he was filming parts of the sequel to his “Sharkwater” documentary series. Add Helium and its owners, Peter and Claudia Sotis, provided rebreather equipment to Stewart that’s used for deep dives. They also trained him on it.

Michael A. Haggard, the Stewart family’s attorney, said Peter Sotis “violated every standard in the dive industry” the day Stewart lost his life and in the months before when Sotis trained Stewart on the complex, and often dangerous, rebreather dive equipment.

Stewart, who was 37 when he died, had been diving since age 13 but he was new to rebreathers. His family said he had not attained the level of expertise needed to conduct the types of dives Sotis allowed that day.

“He rushed Rob’s training,” Haggard said, adding the hastened course on the rebreathers was a “fraudulent inducement to use certain equipment.”

And the third deep dive in day to retrieve a grappling hook used as a navigational aide to mark the Queen of Nassau’s location would be an unacceptable risk for any diver, Haggard said. Someone other that Stewart, who was likely exhausted, should have been sent down to get the hook, Haggard said.

“This was a tragic accident waiting to happen,” Haggard said.

Horizon was responsible for Stewart’s death, Haggard and Stewart’s family argue, because no one from the Pisces watched him floating in the open water after Peter Sotis collapsed on the deck of the Pisces right after the pair emerged from the depths. By the time anyone noticed, Stewart disappeared.

“It’s fundamental,” said Brian Stewart, Rob’s father. “You don’t take your eyes off the diver in the water.”

After an exhaustive three-day, 6,000 square-mile, multi-agency search, divers found his body 225 feet on the ocean floor just 300 feet from where he was last seen.

Rob’s mother, Sandy Stewart, said given her son’s experience and the experience of everyone on the trip that day, there was no reason anyone had to die.

“When you hear about all the carelessness, it’s heartbreaking,” she said.

Haggard also alleges Sotis manipulated the computer on the rebreather equipment, allowing for longer dives. Rebreathers are popular among deep divers because, unlike the limited-capacity conventional compressed air tanks, the diver’s air is recirculated and the carbon dioxide is scrubbed. As the air is recirculated, a smaller tank on the device adds more oxygen based on its computer’s calculations.

“Basically, he lied to the computer and put in new gas ratios,” Haggard said. “This means you can surface faster and spend more time in the water at deeper depths.”

Haggard said this could have been why Sotis collapsed after surfacing, and Stewart likely experienced the same difficulties before he slipped beneath the waves unnoticed by the crew of the Pisces.

“He was using the same gas mixture Peter Sotis was using,” Haggard said. “They both became hypoxic at the same time.”

That rebreather equipment is now being evaluated by the U.S. Navy at the request of the Monroe County medical examiner.

Sotis had it with him when he was at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on his way out of the country to Curacau on Feb. 1. Agents with the U.S. Coast Guard Investigative Service met him at the airport and confiscated the rebreathers, Haggard said.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204