Options floated for keeping dive rescue team

The special taxing district that controls the budgets of Key Largo’s fire department and ambulance service is leaning toward two options to maintain a dive-rescue team in the wake of the department’s recent decision to distance itself from the team operating under such a banner for decades.

Key Largo Fire-Rescue and Emergency Medical Services District Commissioner Tony Allen said the former department that lost its contract with the district in 2013 could take responsibility for the team since it had one right up until the end of its contract four years ago.

Or a separate team could be formed that would operate under the umbrella of the district, just like the fire department and the Ambulance Corps do, Allen said.

“If we really need a WET team, these are the avenues I see to getting it back,” Allen said at the district commission’s April 24 meeting. WET stands for water emergency team.

Each option would require the purchase of costly workers compensation insurance, Allen said.

Two months after the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department dive team was credited with finding the body of Canadian filmmaker and conservationist Rob Stewart in early February, the department’s lawyer, Jack Bridges, said the department had no team and never has under its current configuration.

The announcement caused confusion and anger, especially among those who participated in rescue and recovery dives under the auspices of the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department dive team. The reason, Bridges said, for making it clear there is no fire department dive team was because of a public records request for documents related to the team from a private investigator working for an attorney tangentially involved in a lawsuit filed by Stewart’s family.

Bridges told the investigator the department has no dive team, so there are no documents to release.

“I don’t want to go through another public records fiasco,” Bridges said at the April 24 meeting.

Bridges said the fire department’s current leadership doesn’t want a dive team, chiefly because the department would need workers compensation insurance, which would be very expensive given the types of risky, deep-dive operations the team’s leader, Rob Bleser, is known for coordinating. This includes the 226-feet deep dive that divers guided by Bleser divers embarked on when they recovered Stewart’s body on Feb. 3 six miles off Islamorada.

Stewart’s family’s lawsuit was filed March 28 in Broward County Circuit Court against Key Largo dive operator Horizon Dive Adventures and Peter Sotis, a Fort Lauderdale deep diver and dive equipment supplier. He supplied Stewart with the complicated rebreather gear he used on Jan. 31 when he slipped beneath the waves after filming footage for a documentary, and he also supplied the rebreather and trained Stewart on how to use it.

Sotis was diving with Stewart that day, and became disoriented when the two surfaced. The Stewart family’s lawyers question the quality of the rebreathers and argue Sotis rushed Stewart’s training on the gear. The suit against Horizon is based on the boat’s crew not noticing Stewart go missing.

Complicating matters for the Key Largo taxing district is the fact that the boat on which the Feb. 3 recovery dive was coordinated — the Pisces — was the same Horizon vessel used to take Stewart and his film crew out three days earlier.

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204