Zygmunt Frankel

THE SHARK REEF


TROUBLE

Flying in the helicopter with Werner's body to Eilat, I knew - had known ever since I saw him dead on the reef - that I was now up to my neck in trouble, bureaucracy, and complications. Short of going to jail or having my instructor's license revoked, everything was going to pile up on me, and all I could do was to hold on and pull through, whatever it took.

A medical team was waiting for the helicopter in front of the Eilat hospital and pronounced Werner dead once again, right there in the helicopter cabin. (The army doctor who had come with the helicopter had already done that on the beach.) A few hours later, after a post mortem, an elaborate death certificate was made out, with the cause of death given as loss of blood due to shark bites, with the shock of the two wounds probably hastening the end. (The chief physician of the Diving Association and a well-known marine biologist were present.) No water was found in Werner's lungs; he had breathed to the last - as the subsequent meticulous check of his equipment showed - from a perfectly functioning regulator attached to a three-quarters full air tank. Finally, in the evening, Werner's body, slit open from neck to pelvis and from shoulder to shoulder in addition to what the shark did to him, was slid into the mortuary refrigerator. He was a morbid sight for someone who had seen him only that morning on Sinbad's deck, suntanned and cheerful with a cold drink in his hand; although I personally have seen dead bodies before, in the two or three short wars I had participated in, and the victims were younger than Werner, occasionally more mutilated, and, in some cases, closer and older friends.

Leaving the hospital I had to face a small but persistent group of reporters, and told them the story, stressing that some details still had to be investigated. They were second- rate reporters, banished to Eilat where nothing much was happening, always on the lookout for anything newsworthy, and now they had this scoop served to them on a silver platter and were determined to make the most of it. None of them seemed to know much about diving, and they said "oxygen equipment" several times until I corrected them, saying it was compressed air, pure oxygen being risky and in restricted use only, mainly in the navy, because of depth limitations and physiological hazards. I had to step softly with the reporters, being as helpful as I could while doing my best to prevent sensationalism and panic. I repeated several times that this was the first ever shark attack in these waters, that there must have been some exceptional circumstances leading to it, possibly illegal spearfishing in the vicinity of the reef, that it would be fully investigated, and that there was no cause for alarm. I came up with the spearfishing to forestall any questions about the possibility of foul play, which had been on my mind from the start, so as not to spook anyone who may have been involved, although I still couldn't imagine how it could be done.

Afterwards I telephoned the German consul in Tel-Aviv, gave him all the details, and made arrangements for the body to be flown to Tel Aviv, where the consulate would take over and convey it to Germany. I would also have to write a letter to Werner's wife or ex-wife. Helga had told me that they lived apart but wasn't sure whether they were separated or divorced. There were two children, a girl student and an electronics engineer son, who had lived with their mother but were on their own now. Helga had the wife's or ex-wife's address in her address book. I have had some experience, after those wars, of writing those traditional personal letters from the commanding officer to the families of the fallen soldiers. The letters had to be as tactful and complimentary as possible, avoiding certain details if the death happened to be a stupid or a cowardly one. With Werner there were no such problems; I would give a glowing account of him and how everyone had liked and befriended him in the short time we were privileged to know him; what a shock and loss his death has been to all of us and obviously how much more so to his family. I thought that the fact that Werner and his wife were separated might soften the shock for her; she might even feel that fate has punished him for leaving her; while for grown-up children the loss of a parent is usually easier to bear than for little ones.

There happened to be a plane going from Eilat to Sharm-el- Sheikh that evening and I got a seat on it. The three top officials of the Diving Association were also on the plane, going to the inquiry which was to take place later that night at the Marina Hotel.

When we arrived, the room was already full; they were waiting only for us to begin. I thanked God for little favours when I saw representatives not only of the police and the Diving Association, but also of the army, the diving clubs, the tourist trade, a couple of diving doctors, and even Sheikh Muhammad with his son; I would not have to repeat the story separately to each of them in the days to come. Yankele was not there but one of his close associates was, in civilian clothes. He did not introduce himself or ask any questions; Yankele must have sent him as an anonymous observer so as not to alarm Max who was also there to testify. All the investigators were gentle with us, but the faces of the Diving Association were grim. I could well imagine that out there, their colleagues were in an uproar, fearing the worst as the result of the accident. As for myself, I knew I would have Yankele on my back as soon as this meeting was over; he would not be easily convinced that it was an accident, and neither would I. There would also be more meetings with the Diving Association, behind closed doors, and they would be gruelling. Last but not least there were Sinbad's passengers who, for all I knew, might now be packing their bags to leave on the next plane, and I didn't know whether they could be persuaded to stay on. The desert trip on camelback might help, taking them away from the sea for a couple of days and providing a sort of buffer between the accident and the rest of the vacation.

"We went down slowly to about fifteen metres, and then levelled out and started following the reef face, stopping from time to time to watch the fish ," Max was telling the investigators, in slow and precise English. " I was in front and Werner right behind me. We were not side by side as is customary between diving buddies because there is a current running there and we both wanted to hold with one hand onto the reef face. But I kept glancing back all the time to make sure he was right behind me, and from time to time we would give each other the OK sign. Everything was in perfect order and we were enjoying the dive and seeing a lot of fish, of the same type we saw on our previous dives along that reef. We saw two or three white-tip sharks among them, once again of the same size we saw before, and not behaving any differently. After a while - we might have been down ten minutes or so - I looked towards Werner again and saw that he had stopped, investigating something in a crevice. I went back and made the OK sign, as a question, but he shook his head, and then I saw that he had his left wrist held by a large moray eel whose head protruded from the crevice. I don't know how it happened because we were told that moray eels will not attack you unless you put your hand into their hole or something. Whatever the case, the situation did not look too serious just then. It was a large moray eel alright, about as thick as a man's arm, but it had its jaws clamped over Werner's wetsuit sleeve just above the wrist so that the teeth could not have gone too deep into the flesh because of the thickness of the sponge rubber, and Werner was not showing any signs of panic. He pointed to the eel with his free hand in a sort of half-annoyed and half-despairing gesture, and then took hold of the eel just behind the head and tried to pull it off. It didn't succeed because of the slime and because the eel was wriggling."
"Of course, they hold on like a bulldog," someone said.
"That's exactly what this one did," Gunther said. "I pointed upwards, suggesting that we return to the surface and sort it out there, but instead Werner drew his knife and started sawing off the eel's head."
"Oh, no," two or three voices moaned.
"Fish blood in the water."
"And all that thrashing."
"I thought of that too," Max said," and tapped Werner on the shoulder and pointed up again, but he just shook his head and kept sawing away. He must have thought it would be quickly over, but the eel kept wriggling and thrashing about which made it more difficult; finally, however, he must have cut through the spine because the eel stopped struggling, and Werner began to pry the jaws open. We didn't see the shark coming and had no warning of any kind; I suddenly felt a push and saw the shark's head between us with its mouth closing over the eel and Werner's hand, and then it shook its head a couple of times and swung around and away and Werner's hand was missing, with blood pouring out of the wrist. I believe he still hasn't panicked even then. He grabbed hold of his upper arm with his other hand, the thumb under the armpit, obviously trying to stop the blood, while I took off the cover of my bangstick, slipped off the safety catch, and then we started on our way up the reef face, me holding the bangstick ready with one hand and helping Werner with the other. The second time I did see the shark coming, directly from the front, very fast and sort of shaking its head from side to side."

"That's the feeding frenzy," someone from the Association said." They're at their worst then."

"It went straight for Werner's leg," Max continued. "When it closed in I pushed the bangstick against its head and fired, and it rolled over and away, but not before it had taken a bite out of Werner's leg. I took him up as fast as possible; he has passed out somewhere on our way to the surface but breathed all the way, or almost. Once we broke the surface I blew my whistle, and Cobi, Ilan, and Bob got there in the inflatable almost at once."

The Diving Association asked me some additional questions. Had I warned my guests that fish blood in shark waters was likely to bring on an attack? I said I did, and Max confirmed it. Would I or any other instructor allow a guest to start cutting a fish's head off underwater near the Shark Reef had we been with them? Absolutely not, I said, and Max repeated that he too tried to prevent it but in vain. Werrier's behaviour as retold by Max sounded to me out of character but Werner was not here to give his version of the story, so I kept my thoughts to myself, and said only that both Werner and Max were fully qualified skindivers, with several Red Sea dives behind them, and fully entitled to go down on their own, like many foreign tourists who came here and never joined an organized group. With this, the Association had no more questions, but I knew I would be in for heavy going as soon as they had me to themselves.

Later, outside, Max told me, having first glanced around to make sure that no one overheard:

"You know, Cobi, I withheld a little detail there. It is true that after Werner had lost his hand we started going up together. What I didn't mention was that I was holding him from behind, with my back against the reef wall. I keep telling myself that this was the best and fastest way of bringing him up, but the fact is that it was also the safest position for me, with him a sort of shield between me and the sharks should theey strike again. I must confess that I don't feel too guilty about it, because after all it was him who got us into this; but still it's an uncomfortable thought."
"Don't let it bother you, Max. You did your best and you did fine. Nothing was your fault."
"Thank you, Cobi."

Helga came towards us from the dark - this was the first time I was seeing her since the accident - and I hugged her and kissed her on the cheek while Max lay his hand on her shoulder in a gesture of silent sympathy.

"How and where is everyone, Helga?" I asked.
"At The Dolphin" she said, " drinking a lot. It's a quiet place tonight."
"Has anyone left?"
"No."
"I'll join you two there later," I said, "just have to attend to something on board first. Who's looking after the boat?"
"Ron and Ilan. Bob's with the guests at The Dolphin, trying to reassure them."
"Is Maria there too?" Max asked.
"Yes, she is."
"Oh, Helga," I said. "Could I have just a word with you, please?"

She came closer while Max discretely moved a dozen steps away.

"Look, Helga," I asked her gently, "are you thinking about flying back with Werner's body, or something?"
"N ... no," she said, "I think I would better not. You see, there's his wife in Germany, and although they've been separated for some years, I am officially just his secretary, and on vacation in Spain with a friend. Nobody knew we were taking this trip together. I think it would be best if I came back when expected, and pretend not to have known what happened to Werner."

The Zodiac was on the beach, and I rode out to Sinbad and climbed on board. Ilan and Ron were in the galley, also drinking. I said I would be with them in a moment, went down, slipped into Max's cabin, opened his suitcase and found the packet of tissue handkerchiefs at the bottom, but it was quite light this time. The spearhead wasn't there. Nor was it anywhere else among his belongings.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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