Specifics of Stewart recovery mission muddies debate over dive team

Sandy and Brian Stewart, Rob’s parents, listen at a press conference in Coral Gables on March 28 announcing the lawsuit against Peter Sotis and Add Helium. This was at the Haggard Law Firm.
Sandy and Brian Stewart, Rob’s parents, listen at a press conference in Coral Gables on March 28 announcing the lawsuit against Peter Sotis and Add Helium. This was at the Haggard Law Firm.

The attorney representing a dive shop being sued by the family of Rob Stewart was one of three divers who recovered the body of the famed Canadian filmmaker and conservationist during a deep-water operation on Feb. 3, making the recent controversial debate over whether Key Largo’s volunteer fire department has a dive team even murkier.

The recovery team consisted of Dan Dawson, owner of Horizon Dive Adventures; one of Dawson’s employees; and Craig Jenni, a Boca Raton attorney and underwater forensic investigator, said David Concannon, a Pennsylvania attorney who has been designated by another defendant in the case, Peter Sotis, to speak for him to the public and press.

Donna E. Albert, Horizon’s attorney defending the Key Largo company in the lawsuit, was “out of the office” with “very limited access to email,” an automatic reply to an email seeking comment stated. Attempts to reach Jenni by email and phone were unsuccessful. The lawsuit alleges Horizon and Sotis’ company contributed to Stewart’s death.

None of the men are members of the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department, but Rob Bleser, the man operating the remotely operated vehicle that located Stewart’s body, is the captain of the department’s dive team, or at least he was until last week, when the department denied it had a dive team.

The attorney for the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department, Jack Bridges, said the department never had a dive team and that Bleser was conducting his own operation, independent from the department, when he searched for, and ultimately found, Stewart’s body.

The claim rattled the department and the special taxing district that funds it because the dive team was officially credited by the U.S. Coast Guard with finding Stewart’s body almost 220 feet below the surface that day and no one corrected the record until Stewart’s family filed its lawsuit in Broward County Circuit Court on March 28.

“No one ever questioned it before,” Chief Don Bock said this week. “Until now.”

One report

The only official document available from the recovery mission is an incident report written by Bleser on a fire department form signed off on by a lieutenant. Bridges said the lieutenant “erroneously accepted” the report. During the three-day search for Stewart, the Coast Guard listed the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department’s dive team as being among several agencies looking for the Toronto environmentalist.

Bridges said him stating the dive team does not exist has nothing to do with the lawsuit. He said he hadn’t paid attention to the press coverage about Stewart’s death and he’s now publicly stating the dive team doesn’t exist because a private investigator working for Concannon recently filed a public records request with the department regarding its participation in the the operation. Other than the incident report, Bridges said there are no other records to hand over because the department does not have a dive team and was not part of the search and recovery effort.

“My sole purpose was to avoid another public records fiasco from somebody requesting ‘dive team’ records,” Bridges said this week.

Bleser was a certified firefighter for the department that lost its contract with the special taxing district in 2013. That department did have a dive team, Bridges said. Bleser said last week that he filed an application to join the current department, but that paperwork is gone. He’s conducted more than a dozen water recoveries in the past 36 years, all of which he thought were under the auspices of the fire department.

The confusion, however, could be rooted in Bleser’s successful methods. He’s an experienced diver and owner of Quiescence Diving Services in Key Largo.

For the past several operations, rather than use a set team, Bleser reached out to his network in the South Florida dive community and assembled crews based on the expertise needed. The ROV he used to find Stewart, for example, was donated by the local conservation group, Reef Environmental Education Foundation. He declined to discuss in detail the mission to find Stewart, but the issue is expected to come up at the April 10 meeting of the Key Largo Fire-Rescue and Emergency Medical Services District meeting at the department’s mile maker 99 station, which is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m.

The Stewart estate is seeking unspecified damages from Horizon, Sotis, his wife Claudia Sotis and Sotis’ Fort Lauderdale company, Add Helium, which supplied the rebreather tanks Sotis and Stewart used on the three deep dives on which the pair embarked Jan. 31, the day he vanished below the waves.

Sotis was diving with Stewart about six miles off Islamorada and had health difficulties when the pair surfaced from their third 225-foot dive that day. They were filming the next installment of Stewart’s “Sharkwater” documentary series on shark conservation.

Sotis, who also provided the rebreather tanks used on the dive, was immediately pulled on to the Pisces dive boat, owned by Horizon, and given oxygen. When the Horizon crew, Sotis’ wife Claudia Sotis and Stewart’s filmmaker colleagues turned around to check on Stewart, he was gone. A massive multi-agency, 6,000-square-mile search ensued.

But it turned out Stewart’s body was almost directly below where he was last seen on the surface.

Michael Haggard, attorney for the Stewart family, said 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 equipment. Haggard argues Horizon is responsible for Stewart’s death because the Pisces crew did not watch him while Sotis was being treated.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204