Tragedy at El Dudu: The Demise of Divers Carlos Barbieri and Carlos Basso

Incident LocationDiver Names
Dominican Republic, El Dudu LagoonCarlos Barbieri, Carlos Basso

The longer remote stretch of coastline, more than 100 miles away from the capital city of Santo Domingo, El Dudu Lagoon is one of the finest natural attractions in the Dominican Republic. Visitors can enjoy swimming in fresh water leaping off rocks, and even zooming across a zip line that covers the Lagoon. But El Dudu is more than just an easy-going outdoor attraction. If you happen to dunk your head under the water, you’ll see that the Lagoon goes as deep as 66 feet. Not only that but in its depths, the Lagoon also hides a network of caves.

Speleologists travel far and wide to this corner of the island so they can explore these daunting subterranean labyrinths. Sometimes, this ends in disaster. In February of 2019, the world got a startling glimpse of just how disastrous that can be when two experienced divers from Italy dove confidently into the darkness beneath El Dudu Lagoon and never returned. In this video, we’ll explore the horrifying demise of two divers, Carlos Basso and Carlos Barbieri, and study first-hand accounts from the rescue team to try and work out what happened on that fateful day deep below the lush forest floor of the Dominican Republic.

The Dive

The event on February 9, 2019, at around 11:45 a.m., 57-year-old Carlos Barbieri and 44-year-old Carlos Basso entered the cave system beneath the waters of El Dudu Lagoon. Both were diving enthusiasts visiting from Italy. Despite having earned a reputation for doing dangerous cave dives around the world, neither man was diving certified.

Ed Sorenson, who ended up working on their rescue mission, recalls hearing that an instructor in Italy had recently told Carlos Basso that he should consider getting proper training. To which Basso allegedly replied, “There was nothing you could teach me that I don’t already know.” Now, whether Basso actually said this or not, it seems likely that it represents both his and Barbieri’s attitudes. Without the proper certification, training, or all the necessary gear, both men plunged into the caves beneath El Dudu Lagoon, brimming with confidence from all their past successes. The underwater world which awaited them was something to behold.

Exploring the Caves

After descending deep into the Lagoon itself, the pair would have eventually reached the mouth of the cave system. After navigating through some narrow passageways and right past a highly conspicuous warning sign, the cave system begins to open up. A huge tunnel full of pillars, stalagmites, and stalactites winds even further and further into the bowels of the earth. Further on, the two reached a room in which there was actually an air pocket. 

Divers can swim up and emerge from the surface of the water to breathe fresh air. Despite being located far below the surface of the Lagoon where the journey began, the cave system winds and descends much, much further than this. Ambitious divers, which Basso and Barbieri both certainly were, can swim for a total of 45 minutes before finally reaching the end of the cave system.

Much of the rest of the journey is significantly narrower and more cramped than at the beginning. Unusually, the end of the line in El Dudu actually leads up to an alternative exit different from the place you entered, called Cueva de Lily. Divers exiting the cave via this route can expect to see bats, tarantulas, scorpions, and snakes. But whether they had planned on braving the creepy critters or not, Carlos Barbieri and Carlos Basso never made it there.

The Search Begins

By mid-afternoon, the pair had still not re-emerged from the water. But when word traveled to Philip Layman, the vice president of the Dominican Republic’s Speleological Society (DRSS), Layman enlisted the help of a colleague named Angel Compress. Together, the pair traveled to El Dudu. At the time, neither Layman nor Compress knew what part of the cave system to look in.

All they knew was that two divers were inside somewhere, and they were probably in trouble. This was a daunting task, given how vast El Dudu is. The first thing Layman and Compress noticed upon entering the water was that a lot of silt had been stirred up. These fine particles can reduce visibility in underwater spaces to such a degree that it can be literally impossible to see anything in certain areas. This was obviously a hamper for their search, but it was also a clue. Silt can often be a factor or even a direct cause of many diving accidents.

The Gruesome Discovery

Working on this hunch, the pair were soon joined by El Dudu management and the local authorities from Cabrera, the town El Dudu was located in. The search team cleverly used the silt as a guide, figuring where there was more silt, there was probably a higher chance of the two divers. By following this trail of stirred up silt, they eventually found a narrow passageway with very low visibility.

Here, the search team found a broken guideline. This was a telltale sign that a serious accident had taken place. Unfortunately, using the silt as a map to the diver’s location was a double-edged sword. Even though it led them to their first major clue, the visibility was so bad that they soon had to temporarily call off the search.

Calling for Help

The next day, the search team tried again, but visibility remained terrible, and nothing was found. This continued for several days, with no sign of either Carlos Barbieri or Carlos Basso. Then, finally, days after Carlos Basso and Carlos Barbieri had gone missing, the team made their first gruesome discovery. The body of 57-year-old Carlos Barbieri was found in a side passage.

He was caught and wedged so badly that even though they’d found him, the team was unable to recover his body at the time. According to the National Speleological Society, this side passage is very narrow and is usually only attempted by divers using side-mount gear. Barbieri didn’t bring side-mount gear.

Calling in the Experts

Following the discovery of Carlos Barbieri, more than a week went by with virtually no progress. At this point, they decided it was time to call in additional help. That’s when Mike Young and internationally renowned rescue diver Ed Sorenson were called out to the Dominican Republic. The heroic arrival of experts Ed Sorenson and Mike Young were interrupted in transit by an unexpected setback. Upon arriving at the border of the Dominican Republic, local authorities told the two men they weren’t allowed into the country. While Carlos Barbieri’s body remained lodged in the side passage and Carlos Basso remained missing.

Negotiating Entry

In a report later published by The National Speleological Society, the reason for this is sort of strange. Apparently, the government was not only aware of the diving accident but also aware of the fact that the rescue mission was ongoing and had been for well over a week. They were wary of letting two American rescue divers in to help because they assumed if it had taken this long already, the operation must have been way too dangerous.

After some hasty negotiations and maybe showing the local authorities his track record, Ed Sorenson and his partner Mike Young were allowed into the Dominican Republic. However, they were allowed in on one condition: they only had eight days to recover both bodies. After eight days, the authorities would call off the search for good.

Recovery Efforts

Recounting the story later, Sorenson describes how he brought special harnesses with which to extract the bodies. These harnesses were designed to wrap around at numerous different points on the body for the horrific reason that, after being trapped and submerged for so many days, they may not come out in one piece.

Due to the silt and the labyrinth-like nature of the cave system, Sorenson describes how he explored the cave. He held onto his guideline with one hand and held his other hand out in front of him, essentially feeling around for things that weren’t made out of sand, water, or rock. He says he found the still-trapped body of Carlos Barbieri by literally bumping into him.

Sorenson couldn’t extract the body on his own, so he sent for the local crew to bring down a bunch of milk crates full of weights. These weights helped pull Barbieri’s body down just enough to maneuver it out from under the section of the passage he was stuck in. Finally, after about four hours of grueling work, the deceased Barbieri had been recovered. But even now, nobody knows where the body of the younger Carlos Basso is.

The day after the exhausting recovery of Carlos Barbieri, Ed Sorenson and Mike Young headed back into the cave. They continued their search in the same area, venturing slowly deeper into the very furthest depths of El Dudu. Sorenson actually reached a wall at the very back of the passageway before he found the body of Carlos Basso. It was down in a crevice. In order to reach him, Sorenson had to let go of the guideline he held onto. Mike Young held onto the guideline for both of them while he worked with one hand to try and recover the body of Carlos Basso.

Unlike the first body, this time Sorenson was able to extract the body without additional help. However, due to the extreme depths at which the body was found, the whole recovery again took approximately four hours.

Unanswered Questions

Even though there are some clear red flags in their story, to this day, authorities still don’t know conclusively what went wrong with Carlos Barbieri and Carlos Basso. Overconfidence and the fact that both men lacked proper training and proper equipment surely played a role. But the specific events that transpired, leading to their grisly demise, remain the subject of speculation.

The report of the incident done by the National Speleological Society speculates that as they were nearing the end of their air supply, one of the men, either Basso or Barbieri, got tangled in the line and broke it, making them unable to find their way out.

Another theory put forward is that they mistakenly began following a jump line, a different line left behind by other divers, thinking it was their own. Either way, the report stresses that neither Basso nor Barbieri should have been at El Dudu in the first place, especially so deep. Not only did their lack of certification and equipment result in their own deaths, but it also left their bodies in an unsafe situation that put the lives of the rescue workers at risk as well.

The tragic incident at El Dudu Lagoon serves as a reminder of the importance of proper training, certification, and adherence to safety protocols when engaging in any high-risk activity. It highlights the dangers of venturing into unfamiliar and challenging environments without the necessary skills and equipment.

While the exact details of what transpired during their fatal dive may never be fully known, the incident stands as a cautionary tale for all adventurers and emphasizes the need for responsible exploration and preparedness.

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Are there any hazards in the El Dudu cave system?

Yes, there are hazards in the El Dudu cave system. A warning sign at the entrance warns visitors about the dangers within the cave system and advises them not to go beyond certain points. It emphasizes that there is nothing in the cave worth risking one’s life for.

How deep is the water in the El Dudu cave system?

The water in the El Dudu cave system is approximately 33 feet (10 meters) deep. Visitors can access the water by descending a set of cement stairs.

What happened to the two Italian explorers who entered the El Dudu cave system?

On February 9, 2019, two Italian explorers, Carlos Barbieri and Carlos Bosso, entered the El Dudu cave system but did not return to the surface at the planned time. A search was initiated, and unfortunately, the body of Carlos Barbieri was found in a dangerous section of the cave. The search operation continued, and the body of Carlos Bosso was eventually recovered.

What lessons can be learned from the tragic incident at El Dudu cave?

The incident at El Dudu cave highlights the importance of cave diving expertise, proper certification, and adherence to safety precautions. It is crucial for cave divers to have the necessary training and experience to handle the challenges of cave diving. Only experienced cave divers should venture deep into the cave system. Visitors should respect the cave’s complexities and follow safety guidelines to ensure their own safety.

Patrick Broin
Patrik, a seasoned cave diver, shares his first-hand experiences and expert insights on the treacherous world of cave diving accidents.
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