(by Carlo Forni)

Our silence as respect to the Family

Five days have passed since the devastating tragedy that has hit the entire world around the Portuguese athlete Matthias Sandeck, from his family and friends, to his national team, to all the people present at the Euro African Spearfishing Championship 2019 in Denmark, Svendborg, to the entire spearfishing world. Five days that are still not enough to find the sufficient calm to write and comment what has happened, but still there is a need to do my job as journalist and clarify and explain what has happened in this “unfortunate” competition.

Euro African 2019: start of day 2

A lot of news and comments on this tragedy have been in fact already published on the web and on social media, while as ApneaPassion, the only media who was actually present at the Euro African, in the sea, and amazingly enough involved somehow in the tradedy, we have reduced to the minimum any communication, still knwoing facts and happenings precisely and in advance. It has not been easy. Aware of the tragedy very soon, present when the body of the poor Matthias was recovered from 20 meters of depth, consciuous that it was too late to even hope for a miracle, I had to respect the priorities of the information flow, first of all making sure the Portuguese Federation had already been informed, and so consequently the family. At the same time I knew that the live streaming on ApneaPassion, immediately stopped when it became evident there could be a problem with a diver, could have already opened some doubts and worries on an athlete being involved in an accident. I was between the will to indicate who the spearo involved was, to inform all the families and friends of all the other participants to the competition that their beloved was safe, and again wait for the confirmation the Family of Matthias Sandeck has already been informed, and avoid for them the additional shock of reading such a news on a post on Facebook. Finally, this confirmation has arrived, and we gave information of the accident involving Matthias Stanek. Still, only when the confirmation of the death would have been official I could inform all the followers on AP Facebook page, but by that time the news was already spread.

Start day 2: athletes almost at low bridge

I did not know Matthias well, only made some videos to him, still being present during the tragedy and the recovery of his body from deep down in the water has been extremely tough and until now I have not had the strength and capacity, nor the will, but most of all wanting to respect the pain of Matthias’ Family, to write an article on the tragedy until now, and that is why we have not even made any communication and analysis on the official results, which we might do later on when somehow we will feel this will make some sense.

Twist of fate as we were there

It is indeed true, as said before, that for a curious twist of fate, the boat with us as ApneaPassion team, including me and Gabriele Delbene, the latter continuously in the water to film the athletes during their action, has reached the area of the accident, the big pylon of the Store Belt Bridge, the farthest one to the very limit of the competition field, finding one of the rubber boats of the organization already looking for the athlete who had left his buouy anchored close to the pylon. No sign of the diver, and as I stopped immediately the streaming, Gabriele Delbene quickly jumped in the water, not even knowing what he would have found, but as the great athlete and champion he is, trying to somehow do all he could to check the area underwater and look for the diver.

Unfortunately, he came out of the water after many dives with no luck and completely frozen by the amazingly cold water and terrible conditions he found underwater. It is at this point correct to know directly from him what he found at the base of the pylon of the Store Belt Bridge.

Interview to Gabriele Delbene, first to try the search

Carlo Forni: Gabriele, before analyzing what could have contributed to the tragedy happened at the Euro African in Denmark, please, now with a little bit more calm and after having respected with days of silence the pain of Matthias’ Family, as you have been the first one to go in the water to look for him, what did you find underwater at the base of the giant pylon of the Store Belt Bridge, and what can have happened to a definately strong athlete, as he was part of the Portuguese National Team, which is surely one of the strongest group of spearos participating to international competitions?

:uro African 2019 day 2: Delbene getting ready to dive

Gabriele Delbene: When I have entered in the water it was not yet clear if Matthias was nearby, eventually just out of sigth behind the great pylon of the Store Belt Bridge, or taken out by the current due to for example a cramp. First of all I have checked the weight of his buouy, finding it anchored to two tubes in corrispondence of the first step of the pylon at around 5 meters of depth. Below and attached the buouy two nice cods, a thing that made me start suspecting the situation was critical, as with those catches a competitor does not leave the buouy too far risking to be disqualified. After that I started diving in the bottle-green color water with the, I admit, great anxiety of having to recover a unconscient person from the bottom of the sea. Temperature was quite ok at the surface, but the color of the water became even more dark due to the shadow of the great cement pylon. To help me in such dark conditions I have used as guide the perfectly vertical wall of the pylon. Meter after meter, going towards the bottom, things changed quickly. From a confortable water temperature, this decreased quickly with colder and colder cuts, becoming totally freezing and glacial below 20 meters. The milky layes of water ended by a depth of 10 meters, but the lack of light generated by the cloudy day, the shadow of the bridge and the dense suspension gave the water the effect of extreme darkness that you find in many lakes. The scenary was spectral, with turbid water, freezing temperature and a strong current. Stones where positioned at depths that varied from -22 to -27 meters. Water deep down was definately freezing like rarely I felt before. In one of the dives I even had to return to the surface in advance, not for the lack of apnea, but for the terrible thermal shock, even though I was wearing a 7 mm jacket.

The area was so dark underwater that I must have explored a zone 10 meters from where Matthias has been then recovered without seeing him. To see properly a torch would have been needed, but I was not equipped with it and for such a situation (Garbriele was making videos of the athletes underwater for a video report of the competition). Definately, the sickness that has brought Matthias back to the bottom has been an hypoxic syncope, our first enemy.

CF: Gabriele, you have been in the place of the accident, but also you have followed the entire competition in the water, starting from day 1 and both in the women and men zones, and you have been able to see in both days, somehow even more than the athletes themselves as you had the media boat to move around, what kind of sea floors were the Danish ones. Could it be possible that spearfishing always in quite shallow water in a few meters of depth and then, suddenly the second day, under the pylons of the Store Belt Bridge, find more than 20 meters of depth might have caught off guard Matthias Sandeck?

GDB: The area of the accident was the deepest point, but also maybe with the biggest cods of the entire competition zone. Matthias Sandeck probably has understood he had the chance to obtain good results having also seen De Mola and Losito going directly to that great pylon, reachable with more than one hour of unstopped swimming. Other athletes together with the Italians had chosen that pylon to fight for the best catches and in those difficult conditions agonism put a great pressure on body and mind. Most probably Matthias, even though he had already visited the spot and had arrived Sunday before competition, in advance compared to the rest of the team (Portugal had had only one day of preparation), he underestimated the tough conditions he found. De Mola and Losito, who are deep divers, knowing in advance they had to challenge conditions that were at the limit, were well organized with variable asset diving, a technique that has helped their performance, but most of all has permitted them to reduce risks. Fishing in those conditions at – 25 meters was equivalent to at least a dozen more meters of depth compared to optimal conditions, so a constant weight diving was surely extremely more dangerous.

Store Belt Bridge Denmark – a competitor making his way back

CF: Gabriele you have also followed from very close the phases of the recovery of Matthias after Valerio Losito had found him, at about 20 meters of depth close to the abandoned buouy left anchored at the base of the enormous pylon of the Store Belt Bridge. As Losito, as he told us, was at the end of his dive when he saw Matthias, it was then the Danish and Finnish athletes, Johan Nielsen and Kim Jaatinen, to complete the recovery. We will not go deeper into details of the recovery phase, because who was there, including me, has in his eyes and in his heart heartbraking images; but can describe and explain to us the possible dynamic of the accident and following hypoxic syncope?

GDB: As far as we know Matthias had seen Giacomo De Mola closing the 5 cods with some of them really big, finding them in very deep waters. The two athletes had spoken and the Portuguese, demonstrating great sportiness, had even incited the Italian to go for Victory. We could suppose that Matthias, as all competitors, was challenged by the extremely long swims of day 1 and 2 of competition and finding himself in an unexpectedly tough conditions situation, but with a very good result possible, has been somehow tempted to fish in such spot in constant weight, because maybe he had not before planned the need to fish in Danish waters at Mediterranean depths with such tough conditions using variable weight. All of this, unfortunately, has been for him fatal. Anyway, even if a safety diver would have been with him, I can insure that the risk of looking sight of the athlete in such very low visibility conditions was extremely high.

Windmills in competition zone of Euro African day 2

CF: Gabriele, the tragedy accurred at the Euro-African Spearfishing Championship 2019 in Denmark has left us all shocked, since even if the format of the competition had generated perplexity, never in international competitions there had been in the past a mortal accident. If on my side I am convinced 100% that the life of Matthias Sandeck should at least help to apply a real revolution in spearfishing competitions, where safety will have to reach the highest peaks as never before, with no compromises linked to national rules and the necessity to have more or less show, always aware of course that the sea never gives insurence on safety, which is in your opinion the possible format of the spearfishing competitions on an organizational point and, this must be said, also on the economical side, to obtain such result?

GDB: Since the beginning in my intensive spearfishing seminars I oblige the students to spearfish in couples with only one speargun. Individuality is set aside since one has to wait for the resurfacing of his companion to be able to continue his spearfishing action.To me this is the best form of safety. The format could see the safety diver also as race commissaire. Naturally, also the support boat for each diver would increase the level of reactivity in case of emergency. Already since the ’90s I am also promoter of variable weight asset for deep dives. Statistics on mortality show extremely high numbers of deaths among those who practice constant weight, due to the fact that generally syncope occurs close to the surface and after the breathing block, the normal ventilation restarts, but if water is breathed with no snorkel in the mouth, the body changes balance and goes down as it has happened to the poor Matthias. In variable weight one always returns to the surface due to the great positivity and buouancy, and so, often one can be supported by the person on the boat who in case of fainting will be quickly able to help us restart breathing. If one respects long periods of rest on the surface also the risk of Taravana can become only a thought. All of these aspects, all together, can protect us from almost all possible risks.