Reflection of 24 hours before a tragedy

The evening before the record event, Friday evening, October 11, I found myself seated for dinner with a group that included journalists, IAFD crew and Jeff Blumenfeld. The mood was festive. The reporters drank a lot, and complained about the food while pillaging the steam tables. They joked about European Union regulations that prohibit them from working more than one day out of five. Jeff, the eyes and ears of Mares, Pipin’s key sponsor, scribbled notes and reminded one of an earnest anthropologist doing field studies among the cannibals.

I tried a bit of one-upsmanship on the journalists, who had begun to whine about the early morning hour the press boats would be launched from the beach.

“I’m not even going out to watch the dive” I announced. “Too early! In fact, I’ve already filed my story.” I noted Jeff Blumenfeld’s raised eyebrow, watched him scrawling on his little pad, and immediately regretted what I’d said. He’ll tell Pipin I’m a lazy wise-ass who shouldn’t be invited to cover any more Mares-sponsored events, I thought. “Of course”, I hastened to add, “I filed two endings, Ending A and Ending B. I’ll phone in after the dive and tell them which one to run.” I don’t know what I meant, and the cautious silence at the table suggested nobody else did, either.

Gila, my wife, asked me soto voce whether I really thought Audrey might not set a new world record. “Of course she will!” said I. That was, after all, the plan.

Why on earth would it be otherwise? People make plans and carry them out. Pass the salt, please.

I had arrived at the Viva resort in Bayahibe, Dominican Republic the afternoon of October 6, and after a nap, ran into Pipin and Audrey walking a tropical garden path in the evening air. They walked hand in hand, as usual. I’d not seen them for a few months and greeted them, I’m afraid, after the fashion of a rambunctious puppy. Pipin grinned but was oddly reserved. Warm, but subdued. Audrey was as well. I began to wonder whether I’d forgotten an invitation, neglected to return a phone call or otherwise slighted one or both of these people.

“How’s the train- up going?” I inquired. “When does the boat leave tomorrow?”

“Oh, Audrey already did the dive on Friday” he replied. “She did 166 meters.” Audrey seemed to be studying my response to this news, her face impassive. I was confused. I was not certain what this meant. I looked her in the eyes and asked her how the dive felt.

“Fine.” she said, deadpan. No smile, nothing. “We’re taking a couple of days off now.”

Pipin said they were on their way to dinner and asked whether I had eaten. I had not, and I should have joined them, but I didn’t. It felt wrong. Walking back to my room, alone, I persuaded myself that I had encountered a team that was in the zone, exquisitely tuned for a monumental effort, and that I had done well not to intrude on this perfect serenity.

The thing about Audrey was this grin she did. It was fleeting, and subtle, but it spoke volumes. It was inviting, sympathetic, comic, morose, wicked, pleading and commanding all at the same time. It was amazing. When she gave you one, you felt like you’d known her since the beginning of time. It occurred to me later that evening that this was the first and only occasion I’d ever interacted with her and not been rewarded with the grin.

Gila was still back in Florida. I woke up the next morning, Monday, and found my way to the Viva Dominicus Palace buffet. The hour was quite late, well after 9 AM, and the place had nearly emptied out, but I found IAFD folk lingering at two tables. Audrey presided over the French-speaking ensemble, and I joined Pipin, Matt Briseno and Bill Stromberg for some coffee and English.

Pipin was quite animated, but for the most part his conversation ran to anecdotes involving mutual friends and acquaintances in the freediving community, all in good spirits. In the end, though, it led him back to the matter at hand: no-limits. Training Audrey. Pipin described how he had on occasion taken scuba gear to depth and grabbed hold of the lift bag as Audrey ascended from a training dive, flaring to slow her down to a crawl. “She can’t see me coming, but now it does not scare her at all. She is totally calm.” he affirmed. “She is prepared for any possibility.” I reflected on how I might respond to being restrained like that in the last seconds ascending from a deep dive, and I could see Matt and Bill were doing the same.

Audrey drifted over like a wraith. She put a hand on Pipin’s shoulder, nodded to us, the men sitting with him, and then led him away.

After a while, Matt said: “Mental toughness. That girl’s got it like nobody else. That’s what this dive is all about.”

The IAFD crew took Monday and Tuesday off from training. I had no contact with any of them until Tuesday night when I retired to my room after dinner and found a handwritten note had been slipped under my door. It was from Matt Briseno, and advised me that boats would leave the Viva beach at 9:00 the next morning for a deep training dive.

Audrey’s 170-meter dive of Wednesday, October 9, looked to me like a cakewalk. I noticed Matt had a little trouble pulling the sled release at top time, and that Audrey coughed for a while, intermittently, after surfacing, but it looked good. In fact, it looked great. We were back at the buffet for lunch by 1:00 that afternoon. I puzzled over it later that afternoon: I had just witnessed the deepest apnea dive by any human being, ever, and it all seemed so banal, so non-incredible. Well, I thought, that’s what they say about true champions – they make it seem so easy.

Gila arrived by taxi from the La Romana airport. My wife has no interest in diving or aquatics of any sort, and in fact has never gone beyond knee-high into any body of water.

She speaks no French, no Spanish and her proficiency in English is modest. Gila is in her mid-50’s and has concerned herself with keeping house and raising our children, regarding all other human activities with amused tolerance. Her coming to the Dominican Republic to watch a freediving world record event was unprecedented, completely out of character.

She came because of her feelings for Audrey, who she had met only once in the Ferreras home in Miami. The two of them talked at some length, about what I cannot imagine, while I tried to help Martin Stepanek and Karoline dal Toe’ through a Kafkaesque negotiation of the logistical plan for a recreational freediving outing. When I told Gila that Audrey would be making an attempt on the no-limits record, she dropped everything and arranged her flight to the Dominican Republic.

Shortly after Gila arrived, we attended a dinner party for the IAFD crew and media. It was boisterous, noisy and lots of fun. I don’t think Gila and Audrey got to talk, but I saw them exchanging little girl-waves across the room from time to time. As for me, I got one of those grins, and found it undiminished by the long range and acoustic interference. It was a great evening. The world was at peace.

Thursday came and went, no training, a bit of PR and media activity going on in the background. I don’t think we saw Pipin or Audrey at all.

Friday’s schedule had crew and media launching from the Viva beach in the morning, and then hooking up with the big sailing catamaran that would serve as the dive platform for the record attempt. Bill Stromberg, meanwhile, had persuaded me to join him and Matt Briseno poolside at the crack of dawn for some static apnea training. Bill and Matt were quite enthusiastic about this, as Bill had in previous sessions pushed past the 7 -minute mark with ease, and Matt felt he was headed for glory. I met them at the pool just after 7:00 AM. Bill’s static performance was, indeed, most impressive. I did what I could without subjecting myself to discomfort, although Matt said later he might have disqualified me for a samba if it had been an AIDA competition. Could be… if so, it would have been the first samba of my life. I remember thinking that if true, this would be the most memorable personal feature of this assignment in the Dominican Republic. I rather thought it was simply my normal behavior when made to wake up at such ridiculous hours and not fed any black coffee.

The sled was transferred from the Viva dive boat that had borne it throughout the train-up, and rigged off the cat’s stout boom spar, which was secured perpendicular to the her beam as if running before the wind. Audrey did a couple of sled dives in the 50 – 60 meter range to test the rig and provide some photo ops, and everything went fine. My wife does not do boats, so I, like the other gentlemen present, let my eyes feast on the charming and lovely Olga. This Olga was the onscreen personality with a Mexican TV camera crew covering the event with considerably more footage than that with which Olga covered herself. We jockeyed for position, and persuaded Olga to let us photograph each other with our arms draped over her shoulder. It was a hoot.

We all thought we were in a wonderful movie with a happy ending. No other possibility ever occurred to me. We were Golden People, and could do no wrong.

That night at the crew briefing, Audrey was radiant and seemed utterly serene. There were a lot of people there. I caught her eye, and she grinned, but it was just an ordinary grin, even a bit wan. The crew was relaxed and attentive; the journalists were drinking and schmoozing as journalists do. The stars sparkled in the clear tropical sky. On the way back to our room, I tried to shoot some artsy images of Gila as if she were cradling the setting crescent moon in her cupped palms.

The day of Audrey Mestre’s last dive dawned clear and calm. I’d agreed to meet Bill again at the pool, early, against his undertaking that he’d coach me to astonishing new levels of performance in the static apnea discipline. We met, he coached, I did my thing and I suppose it must be said that Bill was right: I stayed down a lot longer than ever before, longer, in fact than the current womens world record. Then, I thought that this, this would be the most memorable personal aspect of this trip. We finished up, and were in the buffet for breakfast by 8:00 AM.

It was then that the line of powerful thunderstorms began to pass over Bayahibe. The Palace buffet dining room is a large, airy pavilion with a vaulted roof and open sides. We watched nervously as torrential rains rolled off the roof and formed waterfalls, shutting the view of tropical flora and the blue Caribbean behind sheets of water. The lighting strikes were very, very close and the air was positively rent by thunderclaps. It was not the first time the weather had closed in on the resort during the week, but before it had always been in the afternoon.

Matt Briseno, with an advance squad out on the catamaran, recalled later that the lighting seemed to be right on top of him. The crew retreated below to the galley and sat on the deck. He considered then, briefly, that this storm would be the end of him.

The crew, Pipin, Audrey, the media – everybody stopped running their countdowns and began to wait. I wandered down to the Viva Dive Center facility and learned from Carlos Serra that the go-no-go decision would be revisited no earlier than noon. A busload of journalists and invited guests was on its way from Santo Domingo but was already late, no doubt because of the storms. Everything at Viva seemed to come to a halt, and the players melted into the resort like guerillas into the jungle. The beach, the gardens and the footpaths were deserted. It was very dark.

Noon came and went. I had been shuttling back and forth between my room and the dive shop, rarely meeting anyone besides Viva groundskeepers. I’d made myself a raincoat, like the groundskeepers, from a black plastic leaf bag. Suddenly, I became aware without really knowing how, that the event was back in execution mode. I packed up my cameras and a flannel shirt in a hotel laundry bag and headed for the beach. I did not bring my trademark spiral notebook. I thought it would get wet, and I felt I knew the script for these dives by heart anyway.

It did not take long for the festive ambiance to revive. A crowd of over 100 formed on the beach by the boat launch. The missing bus from the capital had arrived, and now, in addition to Olga, another very tall, very glamorous newswoman in a pale blue bikini led her camera crew and makeup artist through the crowd like a hot knife through butter. Audrey made her way through this gathered host as would a faerie queen through her court, to the waters edge, her long hair waving in the wind, her bright yellow sponsor wetsuit the only patch of brightness against the still grey skies. She stood there for a while, the shore break washing up over her bare feet, gazing out over the water to the cat now moored at the dive site.

The media, the spectators and bemused hotel guests swirled around her in the diminishing wind and drizzle. Audrey seemed detached, focused, and serene. She wore a red cloth sash on her right wrist, something I’d not seen before but did not remark upon, either. More than anything else, she seemed to be ready.

Sometime after that, the press and spectator boats idled downwind of the cat, maneuvering in the tide and light swells. Cameras, camcorders, festive hats, and high spirits – it was a carnival! I rode in a small workboat with a teenage Dominican pilot, Norwegian journalist Arnold Weisz, a young European woman, Sam Moses (Miami neighbor of Pipin and Pipin’s dentist) and the Mexican TV camera crew. “MTV, right?” I asked Olga. She didn’t get it.

Audrey got in the water and began her facial immersion. I remember turning to talk to the European woman, who I’d overheard telling Arnold she was there as a freelance journalist. I asked her what kind of hook she meant to hang her story on. The woman shrugged and allowed as to how she wasn’t yet sure. I nodded – we understood each other. We had to find a way to make it interesting.

We were journalists covering a routine, tightly scripted program. We were both looking for an angle, and we were both at a loss.

I wanted the conversation to continue – she is very attractive – and so I said something really lame, on the order of . . . I think I want to explore the WHY, why does she do it? She surprised me with a sharp stare, though just brief, and then said “She does it because of that big lug!”

Ah, yes. I agreed. But where will it end?

In death, she replied, without hesitation. Clinically stated, impassively heard. Like two engineers discussing a faulty weld.

But not today – not now. I’d already forgotten what we were talking about and was just being a normal adult male in an ordinary situation. I was wondering how to get her telephone number, and whether she was into old guys.

My courting program was interrupted by a shout from the dive boat: cinqo minutos. Five minutes. The countdown had begun. I turned to face the cat, and fingered my wristwatch into chronometer mode.

When the time came, it was Pipin himself who pulled the lanyard, the one that releases the sled, and Audrey, to the ocean. He pulled, but nothing happened. Audrey sat, in apnea, and he pulled again. Nothing. Pipin seemed then to swell to huge size, and to savage the lanyard with the strength of a giant. It worked, and Audrey was on her way. I started my chronometer.

The press and spectator boats, engines idling, seemed to swarm in slow motion as the seconds and then the minutes passed. The captains engaged in a high-spirited contest, each striving to insure his passengers the best view of Audrey’s triumphant burst into the air. The crowd hooted and whistled, near-collisions averted – at some point Olga and her cameraman leapt onto another craft and somehow made their way, like stones skipping on the ocean surface, to the perfect camera position. The crew and guests on the catamaran seemed to have frozen in a tableau, some casually leaning against spars and stays, others on the deck staring into the depths.

When my watch hit 2:45 I think I asked aloud, something like “Audrey! Where are you?” Looking around, nobody I could see seemed at all concerned. The party continued. At 3:00 I think I spoke again, something like “This is no good, no good at all”. I remember that Stephanie and Sam turned and glanced at me, and it seemed to me I had annoyed them. Distracted them from the show.

And the band played on, so to speak, as the irretrievable seconds, those relentless markers of a young woman’s passage from this world, left 3:30 behind and stepped inexorably toward 4:00, and then beyond, into eternity.

It is recorded in film and otherwise, but my subjective recollection does not inform me when it was that Pipin somehow attached himself to the BCD and started down to find his wife. It was sometime between the first stroke of horror and the surrender to despair. I knew, I knew, but as in a nightmare the people around me seemed oblivious and gayly carried on. Maybe I looked the same way to them. I’m certain that many of the people there, the innocent bystanders as it were, really did not understand the significance of the elapsed time that now signaled catastrophe. I know that I did speak again when my chronometer passed 6:00. I said to Sam and to Stephanie: “Now she is either on scuba or she is dead”.

The first thing I saw was the bright red sausage. I allowed myself a brief respite from the truth: I spun a tale in which Audrey was, indeed, on scuba and had herself inflated the sausage so as to make life easier for her rescuers on the surface.

Then Audrey, bright yellow, floating supine on the grey waters. I watched as they pulled her onto the cat, and the crowd, now slightly more subdued, chatted, snapped pictures and poked each other in the ribs. The crowd was acting, as would the spectators at a football match when one of the athletes doesn’t get up after a pile-on. The coaches, trainers, teammates and referees huddle around the dazed unfortunate. Water is called for and delivered, on the run, and after a bit the revived player rises to his feet and limps off the field to the cheers of all. That is what the crowd at Bayahibe, collectively, persuaded itself to to expect.

Instead, they put Audrey in a speedboat and raced her toward shore. Matt Briseno, at her side, father of a freediver daughter about Audrey’s age. Where, he wondered later, does the strength come from, that steels a man to carry out the unthinkable task of breathing life, but in vain, into the inanimate child?

The resort infirmary – then the hospital. I tried to pay off my cab driver when we came to a stop outside the emergency room, but he eyed me levelly and insisted it would be best if he waited. He already knew. He was right. There was no reason for me to stay at the hospital. Pipin and everyone else had already started back to the hotel.

By the time I got back to the resort, everyone knew. I found Gila sitting with a few of the journalists and crew by the main pool, and she fell into my arms, weeping and trembling. We stood there, thousands of watts of Dominican pop music driving the bikinied tourist girls through a poolside dance lesson, the glassy blue Caribbean indifferent behind alabaster sand. I walked Gila back to our room. We passed the flowers, the arrangement that had been set by the boat launch earlier for Audrey’s triumphant return. The crowd was gone, and the normal resort life resumed, rows of bare-breasted European women baking in the sun. Somebody had moved the flowers up off the sand and stood them, incongruously, by a service bar.

The last time I saw Audrey Mestre she was a swelling cloud of light in the blue water off Miami. Olokun, Pipin at the helm, two Miami Police craft as outriders, led the fleet through the Haulover cut and out into the open ocean. About three miles out, in the deep waters where Audrey trained, Pipin and his wife were together one last time. He floated on the surface in his yellow wetsuit, opened her urn, and her ashes washed out into the sea. From the flying bridge of Sam’s boat, we watched as the dark blue turned to pale green around Pipin. He floated, motionless, and the green cloud grew and grew, darkening to indigo, until it was as big as the ocean herself.

And then it was time to go.

Paul Kotik has been a Staff Writer and Freediving Editor for DeeperBlue.com. He lives in Florida, USA with his family.

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