Barney’s On the Beat

Death Lurked at Santa Cruz: For ex-CHP officer Tom Campbell, his wife Cindy, and a friend, it started out as an easy lobster-hunting cave dive at Santa Cruz Island. All three were experienced divers, but the pleasure plunge into the underwater maze beneath the Channel Island off Santa Barbara turned into a trap, with air in their tanks running out.

“No one should have survived,” said Campbell, an old friend and prize-winning documentary cinematographer (National Geographic Channel, Discovery HD Channel, History Channel, and Save Our Seas). It was, he told me, “a very dramatic adventure that lasted 16 hours and ended with seconds of air left to escape with.”

“Tom is one of the 10 or 20 best divers in the world, and only one of them could have survived,” said Santa Barbara actor Don Murray (Bus Stop with Marilyn Monroe, Hoodlum Priest, and The Cross and the Switchblade). That near-death experience 25 years ago is now being told in a film, Breathe!, produced and directed by Murray and being screened as part of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, starting this week.

I’ve done a couple of scuba dives and the thought of being trapped in one of those claustrophobic chambers is frightening. It’s a world where one mishap or mistake can be your last. Rusty’s Pizza will not deliver a full tank of air. A shrink will not make a visit to calm the panic that can kill you.

Campbell, Cindy, and a friend, Bruce Smith, were harvesting lobsters in a large cave they’d often visited when an apparent earth tremor kicked up a cloud of blinding silt, disorienting them, Murray told me. Instead of heading out, they unknowingly swam deeper and deeper into the labyrinth far beneath the island. Then Campbell, though toughened by Marine recon operations in Vietnam, suffered a broken eardrum and vertigo.

By luck, the lost divers found a small air pocket. “If they hadn’t, it would have been the end for them,” Murray said. There was only enough air left for one to go for help. Campbell, although also suffering from nausea, volunteered to try to find his way out. Despite Campbell’s “amazing calm and slow breathing” that helped conserve the nearly depleted tank, he ran out of air and had to hold his breath, Murray said. Just as his lungs were bursting, “He heard sea lions” and interpreted ripples in the sandy floor as signals telling him which way to go to escape, Murray said.

Spotting a light on the surface, Campbell emerged, gasping, thinking it was the sun. In reality, it was the moon. He hadn’t realized how many hours he’d been down. Meanwhile, Cindy and Smith were trapped in the small chamber, becoming woozy as the air in the pocket was being depleted and suffering from hypothermia, according to Murray. Worse, the tide was rising.

Campbell swam to their boat and faced the task of returning to the cave with an air tank to share and then finding his wife and Smith. I’ll leave the rest of the dramatic story to the movie, which was shot at Santa Cruz and Catalina islands, off South America, and in the Caribbean and Florida. Murray’s son Mick wrote the script and played Campbell, and another son, Christopher, also acted, along with Cassidy Freeman, a “terrific diver,” who played Cindy, Murray said. Campbell shot the film in high-definition.

Campbell has been no stranger to danger. He risked his life in enemy territory in Vietnam. And once, while filming off South America, he found himself trapped in a photography cage at the ocean bottom surrounded by white sharks. A shark attack had apparently punctured the buoyancy container, sinking the cage and trapping him. But Campbell found a way to reinflate the tank and get to the surface. After retiring from the CHP, Campbell received the J. Stannard Baker Award for Highway Safety from the International Association of Chiefs of Police, bestowed on top law enforcement officers globally for outstanding career accomplishments. In his case, it was for spearheading the Sober Graduation Program statewide and in other countries and the Designated Driver Program here.

Breathe! will be screened on January 31 at 6:30 p.m. at Victoria Hall Theater and on February 2 at 10:30 a.m. at Center Stage Theater in Paseo Nuevo.

Fest Sidelights: The opening-night film tonight, Factory Girl, about the life and times of poor little rich girl Edie Sedgwick, has been much ballyhooed, but what of other flicks on the Fest menu? I’m awaiting Amazing Grace — to be screened next Wednesday at the Arlington — the true story of William Wilberforce’s passionate campaign to end England’s 18th-century slave trade.

Swimming in Auschwitz tells “the first solely female story of survivors of the Holocaust.” The Number 23 stars Jim Carrey as a man obsessed with a book that seems to be based on his life but ends with a murder. (Sounds like another movie I saw recently.)

Barrio Cuba is part of Cuban filmmaker Humberto Salas’s trilogy and “strips away the sheen of a country often glamorized by touristy stereotypes.”

You can reach Barney at 965-5205 or via He also writes a Tuesday online column at and Barney’s Weekend Picks on Fridays.

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