INVESTIGATES: CDA Technical Institute failed to report Feb. drowning, according to ADCI

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax learned CDA Technical Institute failed to report crucial information to an accreditation agency that certifies dive schools. That information came from The Association of Diving Contractors International, Inc., also known as ADCI.

We first told you this week of a second drowning at CDA back in February, which occurred two months before last week’s drowning death in the Trout River.

More former students and instructors are coming forward to talk to us about the diving school and alleged unsafe practices.

RELATED: 2 Jacksonville dive school deaths in 2 months, report says; petition calls for operations to stop

ADCI Executive Director Phillip Newsum revealed CDA did not notify them about Victor Pierce’s death back in February.

We spoke exclusively with another former CDA instructor who sounded the alarm back in 2018.

“I’m horrified about it as well as I’m not surprised,” former CDA instructor William Sneddon said.

Sneddon is a retired first-class navy diver.

He said he taught at CDA for only nine months but in that short time, he said he saw all he needed to.

After he left, he sent an email to ADCI Executive Director Phillip Newsum, detailing what he considered unsafe protocols at the diving school.

In it, he said the school never offered to certify him through any diving accreditations. He noted other instructors were not certified either.

“The school has no certification protocols for how instructors are to become instructors or diving supervisors,” Sneddon said.

Sneddon also wrote instructors were required to conduct unrestricted and unsupervised operations, and he observed safety issues dangerous to life and health.

RELATED: Brother of man who drowned in Trout River during welding class speaks

Newsum even replied, stating “we have suspected some of what you outlined.” Newsum said he would discuss the allegations internally.

Although Sneddon said he never heard back after that, Newsum said an audit for the cause was conducted in May 2019 and one to two of Sneddon’s allegations did have merit for inspection.

Now three years later, Newsum said CDA is under membership review after the recent deaths of Victor Pierce and Fausto Martins.

However, Newsum said they only became aware of Pierce’s death this week through media reports.

“I was not made aware of the fatality in February at all, and that was a conversation that he [CDA owner Ray Black] and I had to have as to why we were not notified because it is a requirement to notify us whether you’re a contractor or school,” Newsum said. “If you’ve experienced a fatality and it is training related and it’s something that is school-sanctioned, you need to notify us if there’s any type of major incident.”

ORIGINAL STORY: Student drowns in Trout River during underwater welding class at Jacksonville Technical Institute

Now he said ACDI is conducting an audit on instructional personnel, equipment, curriculum, and any student material.

The findings could determine whether or not CDA’s ADCI membership will be suspended, terminated, or left untouched.

After witnessing multiple safety violations, Sneddon said “I feel like the school needs to be shut down.”

Newsum also said the change could be on the horizon for diving schools.

“We don’t right now, currently in place, have a regular, periodic audit of every school and contractor. although I think that’s probably the direction that we’ll be headed in the future,” Newsum said.

Newsum said ADCI does not have the authority to shut down or suspend operations at CDA.

While the diving community waits for an outcome, Victor Pierce continues to grieve and remember their beloved brother, husband, and father

Amanda Fulton said her brother’s smile lit up the room.

“He was very adventurous. He was loving. He was kind,” Victor Pierce’s sister Amanda Fulton said.

She said Pierce served in the army for six years before deciding to go to CDA.

“He wanted to do commercial diving, welding because he really wanted to fix boats and bridges,” Fulton said.

On his way to creating a new career, his life was cut short.

“It was a shock. You don’t expect that,” Fulton said.

Action News Jax first told you when Pierce drowned during a training exercise with CDA at Flamingo Lake.

Fulton said she feels like her family was robbed, especially since she said CDA did not notify her brother’s wife when the incident happened.

“The school failed to even call her to tell her. She found out from another student four hours after he had already been transferred from one hospital to another,” Fulton said.

She said Pierce was revived on the scene but was ultimately pronounced brain dead.

“The school has still told them nothing, had zero correspondence, all they can say is they don’t know what happened,” Fulton said.

The police report does note alcohol intoxication was a factor in Pierce’s death… but it also says there may have been an equipment malfunction.

In the medical examiner’s documents we uncovered, investigators said the drowning was Pierce’s primary cause of death, but it shows his blood-alcohol level was .377. It also noted there was vodka found in his diving bag.

Fulton is left with many questions.

“Why let him suit up? Why let him go in the water?” Fulton said.

She also has more questions after the second drowning death.

“Why did each incident have in there: equipment malfunction?” Fulton said.

To those questions– she’s searching for answers.

“Why can’t you just shut down and investigate all of this so another family doesn’t have to go through this in another two months?” Fulton said.

An online petition to do so has now collected more than 800 signatures.

We also asked JSO if they recruited help from any other agencies in this investigation.

“I have been advised that as it stands, there are multiple units within the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office investigating the incident without the assistance of outside agencies. Initially, O.S.H.A. was contacted but they advised the incident did not meet their criteria for responding and investigating,” a JSO spokesperson said.

We reached out to CDA for the third time this week, to which we were told “no comment.”