THE death of a North-East scuba diver who was exploring the wreckage of an ocean liner off the coast of the United States was a “tragic accident” a coroner has said.

Steven Slater, from Gateshead, was part of a group diving to see the famous wreckage of the Andrea Doria, which sank off the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1956.

He and his diving partner, Claire Fitzsimmons, flew out to New York for the week-long trip on July 21 last year and undertook the dive on July 24.

But at Crook Coroner’s Court yesterday, Ms Fitzsimmons, said she knew something was wrong when the 46-year-old shouted to her through their equipment as they explored the wreckage 68 metres underwater.

Holding back tears as she gave evidence, Ms Fitzsimmons said the group had waited until the afternoon to dive as the conditions were more favourable and the pair only anticipated being underwater for about two hours.

Knowing they only had chance for one dive, she said the pair were planning to explore the propellers.

But on passing the liner's swimming pool, Ms Fitzsimmons said Mr Slater did not stop to collect any mementos which she said was "weird".

She said she saw a "large amount of gas" in his equipment and was trying to help release it but the dark conditions and heavy equipment hampered her efforts.

The court heard how the pressure in Mr Slater's suit was making him ascend quickly and Ms Fitzsimmons was forced to let go of him as her own safety computer was warning her they were ascending too rapidly.

It took Ms Fitzsimmons 72 minutes to resurface.

"It is properly heartbreaking," she said. "I just kept hoping they had got him on the surface."

Crew members from the Ol’ Salty II boat are said to have pulled an unconscious Mr Slater from the water and performed CPR but he was later pronounced dead.

Mr Slater was part of the UK’s Darkstar team, who dive out of the Royal Quays in North Shields.

He had dived on some of the world’s most notable wrecks, including some of those destroyed during the Battle of Jutland.

Ms Fitzsimmons said the Mr Slater was a “very experienced, meticulous and careful diver” who had dived up to 100 metres deeper than the dive that day.

Assistant coroner for County Durham and Darlington, Dr John Hamilton, said an autopsy could find no natural diseases but bubbles were discovered in Mr Slater's bloodstream, leading the examiner to conclude he died as a result of a "rapid ascent".

Dr Hamilton said: "Clearly Mr Slater was a very experienced diver and this was a tragic accident."