Months after their deaths, autopsy reports on two people who died in the V.I. National Park have revealed surprising causes of death.
Forty-five-year-old St. John resident Mary Davis, who died following a scuba diving trip in March, and Finnish national Ari Roksa, who died while snorkeling at Cinnamon Bay in April, both drowned, according to the medical examiner’s report, which the V.I. National Park received on September 12.
The cause of death in both cases is different than what officials and family members previously thought. It was believed that Davis, who just months before her death was hospitalized for three days for exertion pulmonary edema, succumbed to the condition on the day of her death.
While Davis was released from the hospital with permission to dive, employees at Cruz Bay Watersports, where Davis worked, were wary about her return to diving, explained a company representative after her death.
“She was not really that healthy, but when she was released, they authorized her to continue to dive,” said the dive company representative, who asked to remain anonymous. “We really tried to talk her out of it, but she was just adamant about returning to the sport.”
In Ari Roksa’s case, it was initially believed he had, in fact, drowned. However, Ari Roksa’s widow, Heli Roksa, wondered whether a blood clot had killed her husband.
Leg Pain, Blue Discoloration
“We’d had a long flight, some 20 hours, from Finland, and I noticed my husband rubbing his leg a couple of times during the week,” Heli Roksa wrote in an e-mail to St. John Tradewinds. “He also said to me that very morning that his leg was hurting. He never mentioned it later, but only four hours later he was dead.”
A blue discoloration on Ari Roksa’s left leg in the groin and thigh area, which was observed by those who pulled him from the water, further led Heli Roksa to believe a blood clot killed her husband.
Roksa’s widow questioned initial reports her husband had drowned due to the fact his mask was still firmly on his face when he was found, and since the couple had just traveled to the islands on a long flight — which can cause blood clots to form.
“The most important fact is that he had his mask on when they found him,” Heli Roksa wrote in an email. “I find it very hard to believe he got panicked, realized he was drowning and didn’t take the mask off. I definitely don’t believe he just drowned.”
Upon receiving news that her husband did in fact drown, Heli Roksa was devastated.
“I did receive the autopsy report and have been in misery since then,” she wrote in an email. “I just cannot believe there was no other explanation than drowning. It doesn’t make any sense.”
“I’m feeling really low and cannot describe my feelings,” she added.
Spike in VINP Deaths
VINP Chief Ranger Mark Marschall was also surprised by the cause of death in both cases, he explained.
“I was surprised to find out these last two were drownings,” said Marschall. “I don’t know if it means we could’ve done anything differently, but it’s something for us to consider.”
The VINP is still awaiting the autopsy results of Ohio resident Mark Moorehead, who died while snorkeling off the 65-foot sloop New Horizons at Honeymoon Beach on September 5. Moorehead drowned according to initial reports, however the captain of the New Horizons raised the possibility that he may have suffered a heart attack, according to a charter boat company representative.
Moorehead, who was wearing a snorkel vest when he died, was the fourth death within the VINP this year, which far outnumbers deaths in previous years.
There were just four deaths in the VINP from 2002 to 2007.
Park officials are investigating the recent spike in deaths and hope to host a public meeting before tourist season gets into full swing in an effort to avoid more deaths in the future.
“We’re concerned about it, and we’d like to conduct a public meeting, where the public can help us determine best management practices for water-based recreation — mainly snorkeling, since three of this year’s four fatalities have occurred while the victim was snorkeling,” said Marschall.
“We’ll invite any interested agencies or organizations, including emergency responders, charter boat companies and dive experts, lifeguards and other EMT-certified VINP employees,” Marschall said. “We’d welcome anyone from the general public who may have some experience or suggestions on how we can prevent the snorkeling accidents.”
There are several tips that snorkelers can follow to ensure they have a fun, safe time in the water.
“Always snorkel with a buddy who you’re in close proximity to and have visual contact with,” said Marschall. “It seems really important to know your swimming limitations and to use a personal flotation device if you have any doubts.”