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Court-martial begins in case of U.S. Navy divers' deaths

By Gary Robertson

NORFOLK, Virginia (Reuters) - A U.S. Navy supervisor failed to meet safety standards when two divers died during a training exercise in a murky tank called the Super Pond, a court-martial prosecutor said in opening arguments on Tuesday.

Senior Chief Petty Officer James Burger, the master diver in charge during the fatal exercise, is one of two sailors charged with negligent dereliction of duty for the Navy divers' deaths in February 2013.

Prosecutor Keaton Harrell, a Marine captain, said Burger, a Navy veteran with 24 years of diving experience, had the responsibility to ensure that safety requirements were met and to speak out when others were silent.

"Senior Chief Burger did not live up to those standards and he was derelict in his duty," he told a four-member jury.

Petty Officer 1st Class James Reyher, 28, of Caldwell, Ohio, and Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan Harris, 23, of Gladstone, Missouri, died when they ran out of air while trying to locate a sunken helicopter in 150 feet of water at the Super Pond training site at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds outside Baltimore.

Navy Lieutenant Commander John Butler, Burger's attorney, called the deaths an accident, pointing to problems that the Navy has had with diving gear regulators.

During testimony last summer before the Navy's version of a grand jury, witnesses told of tangled lines, murky water and malfunctioning equipment at the Super Pond site.

Witnesses said Reyher and Harris used conventional scuba gear instead of a Mark 16 breathing device, which would have allowed them more time to work.

Not enough devices were available, so the decision was made to make the dive using scuba gear, according to testimony.

Another supervisor, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jason Bennett, is to face trial next week on a charge of negligent dereliction of duty.

Burger faces a maximum punishment of three months in the brig, loss of rank and forfeiture of pay. Burger and Bennett are being tried in special courts-martial, which impose punishments that are less severe than a general court-martial.

Two other sailors were also charged in the case, but they chose to receive administrative punishment and will avoid a trial.

(Editing by Ian Simpson and Steve Orlofsky)

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