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Force Never Before Used to Get Students in Pool, Says Torchia Predecessor

August 27, 1988

PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) _ The former head of Navy rescue-swimmer training testified Saturday that he never permitted use of force to make unwilling students get into the swimming pool for drills.

The testimony came in the court-martial of Lt. Thomas A. Torchia, charged with dereliction of duty for allegedly permitting instructors to push a panic- stricken recruit back into a pool at Pensacola Naval Air Station and hold his head under water.

The sailor, Airman Recruit Lee Mirecki, 19, of Appleton, Wis., died in the incident March 2.

″I never authorized a person to be placed back in the pool,″ said Cmdr. Allan P. Nesbitt III, Torchia’s predecessor. ″That is something that would not occur and did not occur.″

But he also said that regulations at the time did allow instructors to pull tired students away from the walls of the pool.

During a June investigative hearing, a pathologist testified that Mirecki had a phobia about being pulled under water. That fear triggered heart failure followed by drowning, although it was uncertain which caused his death.

One of Torchia’s superiors and four instructors have received non-judicial punishments ranging from a reprimand to reduction in rank. Another instructor faces court-martial on charges of involuntary manslaughter, battery and conspiracy to commit battery.

The maximum penalty for Torchia on the dereliction of duty charge would be a reprimand and loss of two month’s pay and seniority for promotion.

The prosecution contends use of physical force in training is illegal, but defense lawyer Ferdinand Salomon argued in his opening statement that it is a necessary part of the rescue-swimmer course.

Salomon, a retired Navy captain, told four officers sitting in judgment of Torchia that the Navy rescuers do not ″pluck little children out of the shallow end of the country club swimming pool. The training had to be tough.″

Nesbitt was the first of 25 witnesses scheduled to testify during the trial. Questioned by Salomon, he testified that it was not unusual for swimmers to go to the aid of downed fliers at night, in heavy seas and high winds.

In an effort to make the training realistic, the school traditionally permitted instructors to pull students who were tired, suffering from cramps or believed to be malingering away from the wall of the pool if they grabbed it for support, Nesbitt said.

″We were training as if we were in the middle of the Indian Ocean. That was the philosophy of the school,″ Nesbitt said. ″There was nothing out there for you to grab a hold on.″

In the wake of Mirecki’s death the Navy has prohibited instructors from touching students at all.

Mirecki died during a since-banned exercise called ″sharks and daisies,″ in which students would swim in a circle and instructors would grab them at random, pulling on their heads the way a panicked-stricken, drowning person might grab a rescuer.

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