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— But unlike real missions, the ability to hold your breath could make or break you during training. Holding your breath to load obstacles with demolitions at unlikely depths of 30 feet or more has been an initiation rite, just as surely as "tacking" submarine dolphins, since the beginning of trainee time. Never mind that such deep obstacles couldn't possibly hazard landing craft that draw only a few feet of water. You load that deep-water obstacle and you are somebody!

Another breath-holding rite of passage is the so-called pool-competency drill (unofficially known as pool harassment). In 1991 the Government Accounting Office (gao), Congress's investigative agency, found this and other BUDS exercises "potentially dangerous.... During pool competency, instructors... knock off students' masks and fins, crimp or tie knots in their air hoses.... No safety diver is nearby to give air in an emergency.... Between July 28, 1989, and March 12, 1990, eight students experienced 'shallow water blackout'...unconsciousness due to lack of oxygen.... Diving medical authorities view this as dangerous because it can lead to air embolism or drowning." I called Ray Dittenhoffer, an authority on free diving, in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he owns and manages Craven Street Inn. Dittenhoffer has been a member and captain of the U.S. free-diving team, has taught spearfishing and free diving for years (including several courses in San Diego), and is a close friend of the world free-diving champion, Pepin Ferreras, who free dives to more than 400 feet.

"Breath-holding at any depth can be fatal," Dittenhoffer said, "because you can lose consciousness from lack of oxygen without any warning whatsoever. It's like running out of gas in a car with no warning indicator. I never practice breath-holding without supervision, even if it's in a swimming pool.

"And breath-holding at depth is doubly dangerous because the deeper you go, the more efficient your body becomes in delivering oxygen to vital organs like the brain. You feel great, you don't have the urge to breathe like on the surface, but your body is using up that 02. At some point, usually as you start to ascend, the light goes out, and you are well on your way to a permanent breath-hold. The cardinal rule is simply do not free dive to any depth without supervision."

After my interview with Ray I had a few intense conversations with Public Affairs Officer Fallon, but he told me little more than I'd learned from his assistant. He did say Kimura was from Thousand Oaks, was 25 when he died, had graduated from BUDS in 1992, and served a tour with Swimmer Delivery Vehicle Team Two before joining BUDS as an instructor in 1996. He said he'd try but didn't think he could find a photo of Kimura.

Fallon wouldn't comment on what my sources had told me. He urged me to wait a month or so until the investigation was completed. He did offer, as he put it, a "sound bite": "This command is absolutely committed to our people and to the safe conduct of all evolutions. Safety is paramount."

He added that he didn't believe his thin statement on 10 January about Kimura's death had kept anything from the public. "You don't think," he asked, "that the Navy should make a full press release every time a sailor dies, do you?"

I said I thought a death in a high-risk training exercise warranted more than condolences to family and friends, especially when BUDS had been severely criticized a few years ago by the gao for ignoring safety during such exercises. Fallon, who is not a SEAL, was unaware of this criticism.

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