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Woman first to spot troubled diver

By Pat Kumpan

A woman who grew up in La Jolla said Monday she was the first to get to the young diver whose father died at La Jolla Shores over the weekend.

John Sonsteng of Poway drowned Saturday morning after he apparently ran out of compressed air during his first certified dive with his teenage son Josh at Shores.

At first, the lifeguards did not spot the teen, said Alicia Berry, 52, who witnessed the young man bobbing like a small object far away.

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Even she did not see the young diver immediately, she said.

Berry, an experienced diver who grew up in La Jolla but recently moved to Point Loma, was paddleboarding with a friend that morning.

“When I saw him, I paddled out and he told me ‘My dad just drowned,’” she said.

Sonsteng, 45, along with his 19-year-old son turned to “buddy breathing” during the morning dive, sharing what air remained in the son’s tank, as the two worked their way up from a 150-foot depth, according to San Diego lifeguard spokesman Andy Lerum.

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Signs of distress

During the ascent, the duo became separated. The son ultimately found his tank was empty at about 40 feet. When he surfaced, roughly a quarter mile from the shoreline, he gestured to lifeguards at the La Jolla Shores station for assistance.

Berry, a standup paddler, said she started waving her paddle toward the lifeguards, “yelling and screaming for help, but no one spotted me.”

Berry’s friend swam to the young man to check if he was buoyant and to tell him that help was on the way, Berry said.

Not seeing shore response, Berry paddled back to get help, she said.

Spotting two young lifeguards, she conveyed that the 19-year-old diver was in distress and that his father had probably drowned, which prompted the start of rescue operations.

Berry said that when lifeguards reached the younger Sonsteng, they put him on a personal watercraft to assist with locating where the pair had been diving.

The U.S. Coast Guard and lifeguard teams aided in the search for the elder Sonsteng. By 10 a.m. it had turned from a rescue mission to a recovery.

The Coast Guard sent a remote-controlled underwater vehicle to search for the body, which was found late that afternoon, according to officials.

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Distraught about the incident, Berry said, “I think they should have taken the boy right away to a hyperbaric chamber to treat him for possible decompression.

“Coming up from that depth, it should have been one of the first things they thought of,” she added.

After the incident, the teen was brought to a local medical center for observation, but due to privacy issues his condition was not released, nor was there any confirmation that he suffered from decompression.

“One of my friends told me ‘maybe you were there to save that boy, and that’s what his father would have wanted,” Berry said. “I keep thinking about that, but the whole thing is very emotional.’ ”

Lessons for divers

Michael Timm, a diving instructor with Aqua Tech Dive Center, said that newly trained divers are typically told to restrict their dives to no deeper than 60 feet. They can become “advanced divers” with additional training and go to 100-foot depths, he said.

He acknowledged that it is fairly easy to go deeper than a diver intended, but the one rule of thumb for experienced and novice divers is “always check your depth gauge.”

Pat Kupman is a reporter for the Poway News-Chieftain in the San Diego Newspapers Group.