New Documentary Portrays What “Alone” Really Means

Last Breath is a documentary made in conjunction with BBC Scotland. “This is a true story,” its opening credits say. It uses interviews, original footage, and reconstructed scenes in the mix we have come to know from History- and Discovery-Channel productions. But Last Breath is more harrowing and emotional than any of those. (This review contains spoilers.)

The film’s subject is a commercial diving accident in 2012, in the North Sea. Chris Lemons is one of 12 “sat” (saturation) divers onboard the Dive Support Vessel Topaz. The ship services undersea oil wells, and on this trip steams 130 miles east of Aberdeen, Scotland. Chris and three other men are pressurized to the equivalent of 100 meters of seawater inside the (dry) onboard habitat. Three of them enter a closed diving bell and are lowered from the ship to the seabed.

Chris and his dive partner leave the bell, wearing Kirby Morgan deep-sea helmets and hot-water suits, and walk to a manifold structure, where several wells emerge from the sea floor. They are tethered to the bell only by their umbilicals, which supply breathing gas, lights, communication, and hot water. Their job on this dive is to throw some lever valves, unscrew some nuts, and replace a section of pipe the size of a man. They will be out of the bell for six hours.

As one of the divers explains, this is more like being an astronaut on a spacewalk than it is doing a job on earth. The blackness at nearly 300 feet is total. The water temperature at depth is 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The ship above them is held in place by a computer over this exact point on the seabed, despite 18-foot swells and 35-knot winds. One of the divers says conditions were “nothing special” for the North Sea. “Perfectly safe, if you can call this job safe,” he says wryly.

But Chris Lemons’ umbilical gets caught in the manifold just as all three dynamic positioning computers on the ship fail at once. The Topaz is 360 feet long and has a 60-foot beam. “Chris was our anchor on the other end,” a crew member says.

Lemons’ umbilical is ripped in two, and the Topaz spins out of control in the night. The bell and his dive partner are pulled away with it. “I’ve lost me diver! I’ve lost me diver!” the bellman shouts. He begins to cry retelling it.

Lemons has five minutes of breathing mix in the bailout bottles on his back. There is zero hope of surfacing, and the diving bell is his only refuge.

There is a kind of existential horror that emerges in the film, as we see that the technology we rely on, sometimes to get us to hostile places, cannot be depended on to save us. The ship literally has no controls for the captain and engineer to get it back on-station; the computer did all that. The icon of the ship on the GPS display swings around wildly, hundreds of meters from where it needs to be, in their pathetic attempts to control the Topaz. The mate says they became “a sailboat.”

The dive supervisor on the out-of-control ship drops the little ROV (remotely operated vehicle) and manages to find Lemons lying on his side atop the 30-foot manifold structure. He and the men in the dry chambers can only watch through the impossible electronic distance as Lemons convulses in his hat and suit.

“Absolutely alone,” one of them says in dread. In the actual footage, Lemons waves at the ROV, which is nearly unbearable to watch. He is engaged to a woman named Morag, head teacher at an elementary school in Scotland, and their house is half-built. After 23 minutes, he stops twitching.

The dynamic-positioning tech reboots the three computers that failed simultaneously. The ship corrects itself and takes the bell to within half a meter of Lemons. His dive partner, who has been being swung around on the stage below the bell all this time, wrestles him into the bell. Everyone expects it to be a body job. It has been 36 minutes since Lemons’ umbilical snapped.

But after only two deep mouth-to-mouth breaths, Chris Lemons revives. He is alive due to some combination of oxygen-saturated tissues and the cold-water mammal response. It is like a miracle for the modern age, and Lemons himself says it is hard to communicate what he thinks and feels about it all, though he still reflects on it a lot.

“I was completely alone,” he says wonderingly. He remembers thinking, “I am so sorry, Morag,” and begins to cry telling it. He says he thought, “Why am I, a little boy from Cambridge, in the blackness, about to die?”

The diver medic who treats Lemons in the dry chamber on the Topaz says Lemons was saying something about being ok as he lay in his bunk. The medic says he replied, “Yeah, you’re going to be ok,” and tried to keep working, but then realized that was not it.

“He was tryin’ to tell me dyin’s ok. And that really got to me,” the medic says. He has to stop the interview.

Three weeks later Lemons and the others are back to work on the bottom of the North Sea.

“And Chris,” we hear the dive supervisor say over the comm box. “Don’t fuck it up this time.”

Lemons replies in his heliox, Donald-Duck voice, “Roger that.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.