Leader of group investigating Jacksonville diving school says 2 recent student deaths are ‘very concerning’

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Leader of group investigating Jacksonville diving school says 2 recent student deaths are ‘very concerning’

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – For the first time, the News4JAX I-TEAM is hearing from the leader of a group investigating a Jacksonville diving school that had two student deaths during training in about three months.

CDA Technical Institute is a commercial diving academy on the Trout River. Its programs had attracted military veterans through the GI Bill, but since these incidents, the VA has pulled that funding.

Now, a group that certifies commercial divers has suspended the school’s membership for cause. Phil Newsum, the executive director of the Association of Diving Contractors International, is now on the case. He says there are safety concerns, so his group is doing a full investigation, and they want people to be patient.

“In this industry, to experience two fatalities, especially a training facility, in that shorter span of time is very concerning,” Newsum said. “It has a huge ripple effect throughout the industry.”

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Dive school still appeared to be going on CDA Technical Institute at last check. While the Association of Diving Contractors International can’t shut down a school like the government could, it can pull its ability to certify its graduates as commercial divers. And that’s what it did last week, suspending the academy’s membership because of safety concerns.

“It’s a hazardous industry,” Newsum said. “We don’t like to use the term dangerous, but it’s a hazardous industry.”

Newsum says CDA Technical Institute is one of eight schools of its kind across the U.S. — it’s the only one under investigation right now.

His organization audited the school in 2019 and found some issues which the school corrected. He says the school did report the death of Fausto Martins last month who died after working underwater at the Trout River campus. Newsum says, however, leaders did not tell his organization about Victor Pierce’s death during scuba training at an off-campus lake in February. The medical examiner found alcohol was a factor — something Newsum says instructors should have flagged before the dive. That’s also part of his group’s probe.

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“And all that you could hope for and ask is that whatever process takes place, that it’s a fair one, it’s consistent. You know, it’s equitable, and it allows for folks to be able to, you know, kind of state their position. It allows for proper and thorough investigation,” Newsum said.

The I-TEAM discovered two more deaths on campus, although they weren’t related to training. Police reports show student died of a fentanyl and alcohol overdose in 2019, and this past New Year’s Eve, a student took his own life in a dorm.

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News4JAX asked Newsum about the students currently attending the school who are worried their certification could be in jeopardy.

“If we’re dealing with some students that say may get caught in a school closure or an inability to, a school’s inability to receive certifications, what students can do at that point are look at some of the other neighboring programs or some of the other programs in the country, let them know where, you know, kind of what process they were in, at what point they were in throughout their experience at the school and see as to whether or not they can come in and be assessed to finish out their program,” Newsum said.

News4JAX has reached out to school leaders several times to get their side of the story and to see if they have any comment, but they’ve said repeatedly they don’t have any comment.

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