I-TEAM: 3rd drowning linked to Jacksonville commercial diving school

Isaiah Johnson’s family suing CDA Technical Institute, instructor for negligence

The family of a 21-year-old man who died while on a dive trip is suing a Jacksonville-based commercial diving school.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The family of a 21-year-old man who died while on a dive trip is suing a Jacksonville-based commercial diving school.

Isaiah Johnson, from Tampa, had just graduated from CDA Technical Institute in August. He drowned on a graduation celebration trip in September.

The News4JAX I-TEAM has been investigating CDA for more than a month after learning of several student deaths.

Johnson’s death is the 3rd suspected drowning related to the school in 8 months. He’s the 5th person connected to the school to have died since 2019, according to police reports the I-TEAM compiled.

Johnson was a big man, with a big personality, and big dreams, his family members said. Commercial diving was more than a career for him.

“He found something that he really loved that he was passionate about,” said his mother Kimberly Cobb. “And we were super proud. And it was cut short. Very short.”

His loved ones are devastated; it’s been 8 months since he drowned while diving at Ginnie Springs in Gilchrist County, northwest of Gainesville. Ginnie Springs is a privately-owned nature park with a series of underwater caves. Records show several deaths at the park over the decades its been open.

“My son should be here, he should be here and he’s not,” Cobb said. “Five months after my son’s 21st birthday, we’re reading his eulogy.”

The family’s attorneys are now filing a lawsuit in Duval County court against CDA Technical Institute where Johnson just graduated. The negligence suit also names the instructor who they say threw the party at the springs, claiming he allowed or provided drugs and alcohol while students used CDA gear to dive.

Johnson’s family wanted us to share this Facebook post from his 21st birthday.

I’m truly blessed to say this... at now 21 years old I’ve never been arrested, never felt what handcuffs are like, no...

Posted by Isaiah Allstate Johnson on Monday, April 19, 2021

News4JAX is not naming the instructor as he has not been criminally charged.

Lawyers pointed out an autopsy showed Johnson didn’t have drugs or alcohol in his system. However, they said many people around him were under the influence, which heightened the level of danger with diving.

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“Isaiah was not trained specifically to dive into the caves at Ginnie Springs and we believe that caused and or contributed to his ultimate death,” said Gregorio Francis, one of the attorneys for the family.

The News4JAX I-TEAM has been investigating CDA because of a number of student deaths:

“It shows the family that this is not an isolated incident with CDA,” Francis said. “It shows them that there are issues there.”

The I-TEAM has been by CDA campus on the northside several times to try to talk to the leaders to get their response to all of the allegations against them. Staff has continued to say they have no comment.

Johnson’s relatives want them and anyone else responsible held accountable.

“It will not bring Isaiah back, but it also will in some way bring justice to the other family should have suffered losses at the account of CDA and their potential negligence,” Cobb said.

The school is still open, but the independent group that issues commercial dive school certifications is carrying out an emergency investigation.

While the Association of Diving Contractors International can’t shut down a school like the government could, it can pull its ability to certify its graduates as commercial divers. And that’s what it did last week, suspending the academy’s membership because of safety concerns. Executive director Phil Newsum told News4JAX his group had not been notified about Johnson’s death.

Newsum said the students currently attending the school who are worried their certification could be in jeopardy may request a transfer.

“If we’re dealing with some students that say may get caught in a school closure or an inability to, a school’s inability to receive certifications, what students can do at that point are look at some of the other neighboring programs or some of the other programs in the country, let them know where, you know, kind of what process they were in, at what point they were in throughout their experience at the school and see as to whether or not they can come in and be assessed to finish out their program,” Newsum said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which issues funding from the G.I. Bill, has severed ties with the school. CDA has traditionally a large amount of military veterans.

About the Author:

Lifetime Jacksonville resident anchors the 8 and 9 a.m. weekday newscasts and is part of the News4Jax I-Team.