A man whose negligence was found to have caused the death of his long-time diving buddy was handed a suspended sentence over the tragic incident which occurred at Mġarr ix-Xini in January 2020.

That morning, Arthur Castillo, 60, met up with Christine Gauci, an AFM soldier and diving instructor, and four others to go on a dive at the bay in the limits of Sannat in Gozo. 

Gauci had just come back from a long work shift, saying that she had not slept for 20 hours. But when someone suggested calling off the dive, Gauci insisted that it would do her good. 

At around 8.30am, the group set out, Castillo pairing up with Gauci as diving buddies.

When Gauci seemed to lose buoyancy, Castillo helped her, asking if she wanted to continue. She signalled with her hands that she did. 

As the pair descended deeper, going from around 16 metres to 28 metres, he helped her dispel air from her inflater hose. 

Then her fin got entangled in some fishing nets but still, she signalled her intention to proceed with the dive, Castillo later recounted when testifying both in the magisterial inquiry and also in court. 

At one point he suggested turning back and she followed, again losing buoyancy as they headed towards the bay. 

He passed on to her two kilos of his own lead weights and they proceeded inwards.

But as he signalled to her to stay near, she suddenly shot upwards and he could not keep up.

However, he later claimed that he saw her grab her second stage mouthpiece as she surfaced and by the time he regained his own buoyancy, his buddy was nowhere in sight. 

Castillo made an emergency ascent, surfaced and spotted a figure in a black dry suit, standing ashore, their back towards him.

He thought it was Gauci. He soon found out that it was another diving participant.

They waited for five minutes and when Gauci did not turn up, searches kicked off while they dialled emergency number 112.

She was discovered face down in the water, close to the rocks, with bloodshot eyes and foaming at the mouth. 

They helped transfer her to an AFM rescue boat.

She was later certified as dying of natural causes, namely seawater drowning and coronary artery atheroma.

A diving equipment expert reported that Gauci had problems controlling her buoyancy due to the malfunctioning dry suit inflator and lack of lead weights.

That possibly contributed to “what eventually happened.”

Her diving buddy was charged with involuntarily causing her death.

When delivering judgment, the court, presided over by magistrate Simone Grech, stated that the prosecution had to prove a link between his conduct and her death. 

Upon all evidence put forward, the court was convinced that the accused had indeed been negligent. 

'Too many assumptions'

Throughout the dive, various factors indicated that she had buoyancy problems and still the dive continued.

Although Castillo did assist her as he was duty-bound to do most of the time, he failed in the final stage.

He assumed that she was swimming back to shore after surfacing.

He last saw her wrap her arms around a Nitrox 50% deco cylinder but did not establish eye contact with her, nor did he check her air supply. 

There was also a discrepancy in the fact that whereas he had a closed circuit rebreather system, Gauci’s supply was different and finite. 

That discrepancy persisted throughout the dive and affected the final outcome.

The court observed that the accused had made many assumptions without effectively making contact with his buddy at the 77th minute into the dive. 

Although Gauci was a diving instructor, that did not exonerate her buddy from his duties.

He made too many assumptions when it was clear that it was a difficult dive for the victim, observed the court.

In fact, he had a greater duty to make sure that she was safe, rather than just assume that. 

This unfortunate incident could have easily been avoided had the accused shown greater caution and prudence, Magistrate Grech said.

It was a great tragedy, not only for the parties involved but also for their families. 

The victim was young and moreover, she and the accused had been diving partners for a long time. 

'Negligence on part of the victim'

The court could not ignore the element of contributory negligence on the part of the victim who was tired after a long work shift but still insisted on going ahead with the dive.

She wore a dry suit that did not quite fit her size and was not trained to use such a suit.

Moreover, even after experiencing buoyancy problems, she wanted to proceed.

However, all this did not exonerate the accused, concluded the court, declaring him guilty and condemning him to a two-year jail term suspended for four years, pronouncing itself convinced that this case did not merit effective imprisonment. 

The accused was also ordered to pay two-thirds of court expert expenses amounting to €1,114.55.

Inspector Josef Gauci prosecuted. 

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