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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