PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — An 18-year-old Sea Cadet lost his life while doing what he loved most — diving and fishing.
On April 11, 24-year-old Kaleb Cromer, 18-year-old Landon Driggers, and two other free-divers suited-up, grabbed their GoPros, and headed towards open water.
Besides not having any luck with fish, their day was going relatively well — until they decided to swim under the Hathaway Bridge.
Cromer said the goal was to find an area where the water was clear, visible enough to spot fish. He said he never could have imagined what would happen next.
“I checked for boats probably four or five times, at least,” Cromer said. “I never saw the boat that came towards us.”
Cromer said he got distracted for a moment while adjusting his dive gear that was getting tangled during his swim. He said, suddenly, he heard the roar of a boat engine headed their way.
“I picked my head up out of the water and I looked to my left and there was a boat coming at Landon and I full speed,” Cromer said. “All I remember doing was I folded my body and used my arms to take a stroke down and I think that is what saved my body.”
Cromer said, from that moment on, it was full-on chaos.
“They thought I’d been attacked by a shark at first,” Cromer said. “I was like, no, we just got hit by a boat.”
Cromer said he screamed loud — louder than he’d ever screamed in his entire life.
Fortunately for Cromer, he was loud enough to catch the attention of 22-year-old, Jeffery Prumatico who was driving his grandpa’s boat nearby.
“As we were about to leave, we heard a really loud screaming for help,” Prumatico said. “I see two guys in wetsuits come out of the water and then I see a third guy come out and there was just an enormous pool of blood.”
After driving his boat over and spotting Cromer’s arm, he also assumed a shark was to blame.
“That’s when the boat that hit him, they ended up coming back and they were frantic,” Prumatico said, “the guys were freediving with no dive flag so there was no way they could have known they were down there.”
While Prumatico’s girlfriend called 911, he floored it over to the coast to get Cromer onto dry land.
“I hopped off the boat and I came up and I sat on the ground,” Cromer said, “my buddy was helping me hold my tourniquet.”
The tourniquet was made from one of their dive belts. Cromer said it worked well to stop the flow of blood.
As Cromer sat in the grass, the sirens from the ambulance echoed loudly in his ear. With a bulldozer blocking the entrance of the parking lot, he realized he had to act fast.
“When I saw that and they passed us, I just hopped to my feet and started walking,” Cromer said. “I was like, I need to get to that road right there.”
Cromer said his friend supported him as they made their way towards the ambulance on foot.
“I just sat on the ground and I let the professionals go to work,” Cromer said.
Cromer said doctors told him he didn’t sever a major artery in his arm. That combined with the homemade tourniquet and Prumatico’s quick response is more than likely what saved his arm, let alone his life.
Landon Driggers wasn’t so lucky. After the accident, he was nowhere to be found.
The FWC incident report said Driggers’s body was located and recovered on April 12, the following day.
Driggers’s mother, Sandra Driggers said her son had major plans for his future that included a career as a Navy Diver.
“He was on the delayed entry program to become a Navy Diver and was originally supposed to enter in May,” Sandra said. “COVID restrictions stopped training and pushed boot camp off until August.”
Sandra Driggers said they have set up the “Landon Driggers Assistance Fund” to help other cadets receive training.
“His life was characterized by Christian faith, encouragement, and servanthood,” Sandra Driggers said. “There are so many people who have been crushed by this terrible event and he would have been so very apologetic and so very sad at the devastation to his family, friends, the boater, and Kaleb.”
Sandra Driggers and Cromer both believe that it was a lapse in judgment that led to such a terrible tragedy.
“We almost felt complacent that we had a buoy,” Cromer said. “Since the accident, I definitely would stress, don’t get complacent.”
“People cannot let attention lapse or responsibility for their own safety be handed over to even what they perceive to be the most experienced or most trustworthy people,” Sandra Driggers said.
Robert Ramos, PIO for the Florida Fishing and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said any diver planning to go underneath the water with equipment is required to display a divers-down warning device.
Ramos said occasionally accidents do occur when no dive flag is present.
“Most commonly in shallow water, we have a little bit more of a concern about that,” Ramos said. “During our busy scalloping season, up in the Panhandle and Big Bend area where it’s very frequent where a lot of snorkelers or divers are in relatively shallow water with a big population of boats that are just scurrying here and there.”
Ramos said all dive flags must be visible to boaters from a 360-degree angle.
“In general, in open water, when a dive flag is displayed, a boater needs to stay 300 feet away from that dive flag,” Ramos said. “If they have to come within 300 feet of that flag, then they have to come to idle speed.”
Cromer said he feels terrible about their lapse in judgment that day — it cost Driggers his life.
“He was swimming right next to me,” Cromer said. “We were one foot apart maybe. That split second I had to turn and look made all the difference. I think about that a lot.”