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Patrick Vandam was a competitor.
From participating on the Air Force's swimming and diving team to scarfing down 25 hotdogs in 10 minutes at the Nathan's Famous Hotdog Eating Contest in Coney Island, the 26-year-old Minnesota man loved a challenge.
So when Vandam heard about the U.S. National Freediving Championships in Kona, Hawaii, last year, he signed up. His training led him to Utah, where he used a popular geothermal pool at The Homestead resort known as the Crater to practice long dives under water.
He arrived at the Crater in Midway on March 17, 2010, ready to swim and freedive while visiting friends in Utah. In between dives where Vandam tried to remain underwater for six-minute stretches to see how far he could travel he chatted with a scuba-diving class also on-scene to explore the cavern.
After talking to class members in a hot tub area of the crater, Vandam borrowed a mask from a scuba diver instructor, then left to try another dive.
It would be his last.
Vandam died after he couldn't make it back to the surface of the 90-degree water.
Now his parents, Elizabeth and Gerald Vandam of Eagan, Minn., have filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court alleging The Homestead and its business partner, The Crater Inc., should have employed a lifeguard at the Crater in accordance with Utah law that cites safety regulations for geothermal pools at resorts.
Vandam's death could have been prevented, the family alleges, if The Homestead provided a lifeguard, equipped the crater with better safety and rescue equipment and kept better supervision of Vandam, who told a resort employee that he was freediving in the crater.
Central to their case is a relatively new Utah law that stipulates safety regulations for geothermal pools, said attorney Alan C. Bradshaw, who is representing the family.
The Homestead received communication from the Utah Department of Health on four occasions in 2008 and 2009, informing the resort that changes to Utah code would take effect on July 13, 2009, which required the resort to employ a lifeguard, the family lawsuit states.
The resort failed to comply, the lawsuit alleges. A spokesman for The Homestead could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, and federal court documents do not state who will be defending the resort in the case.
The plaintiffs acknowledge in their complaint, however, that the resort gives visitors to the Crater some warning of possible danger: A sign states that drowning or other water-related injuries caused by silt and debris in the water can occur.
Still reeling from the loss of their son, the Vandams are seeking at least $75,000 for medical and funeral expenses as well as emotional trauma.
A scuba instructor discovered Vandam's body after members of the scuba class saw Vandam bob to the surface during his last dive, then sink back down in the crater. The instructor, who had lent his mask to Vandam, dived into the crater where he found Vandam unconscious near the bottom, according to the lawsuit, filed this week in federal court.
Several people in the scuba class tried to revive Vandam until rescue workers arrived, but their efforts were unsuccessful.
Vandam graduated as a captain from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2006 with a chemistry degree. He received a top score of 36 on the Medical College Admission Test and was applying to medical schools at the time of his death.
He'd been a star on his swim team at St. Thomas Academy in high school, a military prep school in Mendota Heights, Minn., where he earned the status as an All-American in the 100 butterfly, according to his profile on the Air Force's athletics web site.
DiveWise, a nonprofit organization that promotes freediving, used Vandam's death to remind other freedivers to take precautions when practicing the sport.
"Please dive with a buddy under constant and direct supervision," the group posted on its Web site after Vandam's death.
Vandam's family held a memorial for him in American Fork in March, then returned his remains to Minnesota.
The family's case is assigned to Magistrate Judge Brooke C. Wells but doesn't have any hearing dates scheduled yet in federal court.
What is the Crater?
According to court documents and The Homestead resort's website, the Crater, as it is known, is a 65-foot-deep cavelike rock formation used for swimming, soaking and scuba diving lessons. The Crater's water is about 90 to 96 degrees Fahrenheit, and its mineral waters are a popular tourist attraction.
Divers can "descend 55 feet into the hourglass-shaped depths," when visiting the Crater, The Homestead's website states.
The Crater is open to the public for an admission fee.
Drowning victim known on food competition circuit
Patrick Vandam, who died in a diving accident at The Homestead in Midway in March, had made a name for himself on the circuit of competitive eating competitions.
He traveled the country to vie for championships for eating the most corn dogs, pizza or pork sandwiches in a set amount of time.
His accomplishments included top honors and a $1,500 prize for downing 44 tamales in 12 minutes at the World Tamale Eating Championship in Lewisville, Texas, in 2008 and 13th place at the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, N.Y., also in 2008. He nabbed sixth place in 2007 for eating 13.5 pounds of grits in 10 minutes at the Louisiana Downs World Grits Eating Championship in Bossier, La.