James Cameron Almost Died Making The Abyss

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Up in the control room, Orloff had noticed the director wasn’t sounding like himself. Suddenly the sound mixer heard Cameron’s helmet being popped off and all the expensive electronics inside it flooding. Back in the tank, with his heavy helmet now off and fastened to his buoyancy vest by a braided steel hose, Cameron couldn’t see anything but a blur. By feel, he located the release of his buoyancy vest and shrugged out of it, dropping the helmet to the floor of A Tank. Then he began what divers call a “blow and go,” a free ascent. If a diver fails to breathe out during a free ascent, the compressed air in his lungs will expand as the pressure in the water around him decreases, and eventually his lungs will explode, a very painful way to die. Cameron was blowing out a stream of bubbles as he ascended, and kicking like crazy because of his ankle weights. Finally, a safety diver named George raced to the director’s aid. And that’s when things got bad.

Safety divers are trained to stop panicking divers from ascending, so they don’t blow their lungs. So George stopped Cameron about 15 feet from the surface, as he was schooled to do, and shoved his back-up regulator into Cameron’s mouth. And Cameron did what he was supposed to do, which is purge, then inhale. But the back-up regulator was broken, a useless piece of junk disguised as lifesaving equipment. So Cameron inhaled water. Thinking he had purged incorrectly, Cameron repeated the procedure, as George held him down, and got another blast of water in his lungs.

Now he was choking, about to black out, and he had a guy holding him from ascending. With no way of explaining that he wasn’t getting air, Cameron tried to pull away. Thinking the director was panicking, George held him even tighter, and tried to make him breathe on the regulator. “A classic clusterfuck,” recalls Cameron. It was then that Cameron’s rough SCUBA training in the Buffalo Y pool really came in handy—either that or having brothers. Because he punched George as hard as he could, right in the face. George let Cameron go and the director made it to the surface without blacking out. He swam weakly to the dive platform and dragged himself from the tank.

By the end of the day, he had fired George and his AD. And he ordered the divers at the surface to fish out his helmet and fix the microphone so he could get back down in A Tank.

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