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

JACKSONVILLE, Florida. – For the first time, the News4JAX I-TEAM hears from the leader of a group investigating a Jacksonville dive 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 Its programs had attracted military veterans through the GI Bill, but since those incidents the VA has withdrawn that funding.

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

“In this industry, to experience two fatalities, particularly in a training facility, in this shorter time frame is very concerning,” Newsum said. “It has a huge ripple effect on the whole industry.”

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The dive school still seemed to be taking place at the CDA Technical Institute when last checked. Although the Association of Diving Contractors International cannot close a school like the government could, it can withdraw its ability to certify its graduates as commercial divers. And that’s what he did last week, suspending academy membership for security reasons.

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

According to Newsum, CDA Technical Institute is one of eight such schools in the United States — it’s the only one currently under consideration.

His organization audited the school in 2019 and found a few issues that the school fixed. He says the school reported the death of Fausto Martins last month after working underwater on the Trout River campus. Newsum says, however, that leaders did not notify his organization of Victor Pierce’s death during scuba training on an off-campus lake in February. The medical examiner found alcohol was a factor – something Newsum says instructors should have flagged before the dive. This is also part of his group’s probe.

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“And all you can hope and ask is that whatever process is going on, that it’s fair, that it’s consistent. You know, it’s fair, and it allows people to be able to, you know, kind of state their position. This allows for a proper and thorough investigation,” Newsum said.

The I-TEAM discovered two other deaths on campus, although they were not related to training. Police reports show a college student died of a fentanyl and alcohol overdose in 2019, and last New Year’s Eve a college student committed suicide in a dorm.

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News4JAX asked Newsum about students currently attending the school who fear their certification may be in jeopardy.

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

News4JAX reached out to the headteachers multiple times to get their side of the story and to see if they had any comment, but they repeatedly said they had no comment.

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