Hernando cave claims diver

Recovery teams, working with volunteers, couldn't find the man's partner before bad weather ended the search.

Published June 14, 2004

BROOKSVILLE - The body of a diver was found Sunday in one of the underwater caves for which Hernando County is world renowned.

The search will resume today for the body of his diving partner at the formation known as the Eagle's Nest, near the coastal town of Bayport.

The body of John H. Robinson, Jr., 36, of St. Petersburg was found around 2 p.m. The search for his friend and diving partner Craig Simon, 44, of Spring Hill was called off Sunday night as bad weather broke.

"His tank was empty when they brought it up," said Hernando sheriff's spokesman Lt. Joe Paez.

Paez said that investigators did not think Robinson died from faulty equipment. Rather, he may have become disoriented inside the cave, or possibly had run out of air trying to help his diving partner.

Eagle's Nest, known for its wide, deep caverns, is one of Florida's most challenging underwater dive sites. Nearly 300 feet below ground and utterly dark, any mistake can be the last, divers say.

"If you get turned around, you could very easily go the wrong way for a distance," said Mike Poucher, a 44-year-old Ocala diver who helped with the rescue operation Sunday. "Given the depth, even a small mistake can be pretty unforgiving."

The two men went into the water at about 1 p.m. Saturday. Paez said a third friend, who was not identified, called for help at about 3:30 p.m. when the two did not surface.

Members of the Pasco and Citrus county underwater recovery teams searched the 70-degree waters Saturday, along with about a dozen volunteers.

Sunday afternoon, stony faced divers carried equipment to the murky pond that hides the entrance to the 280-foot deep cave.

"There is a current down there and it could be that the other body may have drifted pretty far," said Paez.

Eagle's Nest is a magnet for those who enjoy the risky sport of cave diving. Divers from all over the world have trekked to the secluded woods about four miles off U.S. 19.

The spring-fed lake and its surrounding 720 acres were once off limits to divers, but last year enthusiasts persuaded the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to open it to experienced divers.

After passing through the small, murky pond, divers pass through a "chimney" that leads them down 70 feet to a large chamber, 150 feet wide and at least as deep. Divers call it "the ballroom." It's one of the biggest known caves in Florida. And to many, it's one of the world's prettiest.

"The visibility is clear. You can see the sun coming down through that chimney," said Michael Garman, 42, of Palm Harbor. "It's beautiful."

Garman, who is the vice president of the National Association for Cave Divers and a diver since 1990, said the Hernando County destination is not for beginners.

From the great hall, divers can move in two directions into 40-foot-wide passageways that stretch several thousand feet in each direction.

Inside the cave, away from the chimney, the cave is without natural light.

An 18-watt diving light provides up to 50 feet of visibility at Eagle's Nest. A white nylon rope strung up in the cave marks the way back to the chimney, Garman said.

"If the visibility gets low, for whatever reason, it could be hard to find your way," said Garman.

Most trips into the cave last around an hour, and as a rule, divers save about a third of their tanks of air in case of emergencies.

"If you lose track of the line, you spend time having to find the line," Garman said. "You're not sure which way to go. You get nervous. You're already almost 300 feet deep. The gas in your tank doesn't last very long - you get panicked."

Robinson Jr., an electrical engineer in the St. Petersburg office of Raytheon, was an avid diver who had been to Eagle's Nest before, said his father.

"He did this every weekend," John Robinson said. "He really knew his stuff. We don't know how this could have happened. Nobody else seems to know, either."

Born and raised on Long Island, Robinson Jr. learned to dive while earning his master's degree at the University of Florida in the early 1990s. After spending time working in California, he returned to Florida in 2001.

A studious, meticulous man, Robinson Jr. was even picked on for the obsessive way he maintained his diving gear, said his parents, who are now retired and living in Ocala.

"He was very careful about his equipment," said mother Joan Robinson. "He was a wonderful son, quiet and reserved."

Even though Robinson Jr. took diving seriously, it still scared his parents. On Sunday, after returning from a trip to see friends, the Robinsons received the news of their son's death from a sheriff's deputy.

"We always had to worry, but he was very skilled in it, so we figured, all right," John Robinson said. "We couldn't do much about it anyway. He loved it that much."

When reached by phone, a representative from Simon's family declined to comment.

Second cave diver's body found

Searchers found Craig Simon, 44, of Spring Hill Monday evening. Earlier storms had slowed divers' efforts.

By DUANE BOURNE, Times Staff Writer
Published June 15, 2004

BAYPORT - About 7:30 p.m. Monday, divers found the body of a Spring Hill man missing since he went diving in the underwater caves at Eagle's Nest two days ago, Hernando County Sheriff's officials said.

It brings to an end the long weekend of searching and hope for family members, friends and law enforcement.

Bad weather and the need to relieve divers had slowed the search for Craig Simon, 44. His body had not been recovered as of press time. The body of Simon's diving partner, John H. Robinson Jr., 36, of St. Petersburg, was recovered Sunday.

Simon and Robinson were reported missing Saturday when an unidentified person noticed that the men had not resurfaced after 31/2 hours underwater.

After receiving a call for help about 3:30 p.m. Saturday, members of the Pasco and Citrus county underwater recovery teams and volunteers descended into the mouth of the Eagle's Nest, a renowned cave system that is also known as the Lost Sink.

Divers pulled Robinson's body from the water at 2 p.m. Sunday but called off the search for Simon, who lived on Cara Street in Spring Hill.

Hernando sheriff's spokesman Lt. Joseph Paez said that divers, many of whom had been assisting in the operation since Saturday evening, called off the search for Simon about 7 p.m. Sunday because of the darkness and the amount of time many of the volunteers had been underwater.

The break allowed them time to regroup and decompress from the deep dive.

Because of the depth of the cavernous hole, a small amount of nitrogen builds up in the diver's body, causing a painful, sometimes deadly, condition called the bends.

Divers had planned Monday to conduct a more extensive search, diving deeper into the cavernous area about 300 feet below ground. Many stayed in a cordoned off area near the hole and prepared for an operation that could take between six and eight hours.

However, severe lightning and thunderstorms dropped buckets of water around 3:20 p.m. Monday and slowed the recovery effort.

Some who drove on to the state-owned lands became stuck in deep water and dirt. Others, said to be relatives of Simon, were ferried through the thicket in sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks.

"It is an extremely difficult, technically challenging operation," said Paez.

- Duane Bourne can be reached at 352 754-6114. Send e-mail to dbourne@sptimes.com

Cave's majesty a lethal lure:[SOUTH PINELLAS Edition]
DAN DeWITTDUANE BOURNESt. Petersburg TimesSt. Petersburg, Fla.: Jun 16, 2004.  pg. 1.A
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Copyright Times Publishing Co. Jun 16, 2004

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Paul Heinerth promised the family he would find the body.

But as they waited 290 feet above at the edge of the Eagle's Nest sinkhole, the search for Craig Simon was not going well.

It had been two days since Simon and his partner failed to surface after diving into the world-famous cave system in west Hernando County. While the body of John Robinson Jr. had been located, a half-dozen recovery dives revealed no sign of Simon.

Now, in a cave known for huge chambers, Heinerth passed a closet- sized room known as John's Pocket. Scanning the entrance, his light caught the stainless steel clip of a diving scooter, mostly buried in the cave's silty floor.

Swimming inside, he saw Simon's body, suspended in water, tangled in guide line that might have caused his drowning.

"My first feeling was of relief," Heinerth said. "I had personally told Craig's family I would find him. I just didn't want to come up and face them again."

The discovery served as a horrifying reminder of the dangers of cave diving. But it also underscored the sport's attraction: beautiful waters, spacious tunnels and camaraderie among divers, many of whom had come from around Florida to search for Simon, 44, and Robinson, 36.

"It's such a small community, people who dive in caves," said Mike McDonald, 37, a friend and diving partner of Simon's. "It's almost a brotherhood."

One experienced diver described Eagle's Nest as "one of the Mount Everests of cave diving."

On the surface is it an ordinary-looking pond, rimmed in algae and only about 200 feet across.

Down below, however, is more than a mile of charted passages. The deepest of them, at 300 feet, present a technical challenge that attracts divers from around the world. The beauty of chambers such as the Main Ballroom, which is 400 feet long and 200 feet across, inspires awe.

"It's bigger than most. It's deeper than most. It's an extraordinary cave," said Dustin Clesi, chairman of Florida Speleological Researchers Inc.

Robinson and Simon seemed prepared to take it on, said a fellow diver who watched them before they descended, shortly before noon Saturday, and overheard them discuss their dive.

They planned to spend 40 minutes on the bottom, said Abie Shariat, and rise to 200 feet to begin decompression, the slow ascent needed to avoid the bubbling of air in the veins, called the bends. They planned to be under water about 2 1/2 hours.

Besides carrying what seemed like plenty of air, Shariat said, Robinson and Simon had high-quality scooters and computers to help ensure safe decompression.

"They were calm, happy and content," said Shariat, a veteran diver. "I remember thinking these two guys were much more experienced than us."

Cave diving has killed about 400 people since the early 1970s; five have died at Eagle's Nest since 1981.

Better training and equipment have made it safer, but small mistakes can be fatal.

The danger was illustrated Tuesday evening when the bends apparently struck one of the recovery divers, who was flown to Shands Hospital in Gainesville. If divers go more than 150 feet below the surface with compressed air rather than a mix that includes helium, they are vulnerable to disorienting effects of nitrogen narcosis.

"It's like being drunk," Heinerth said.

They also can lose sight of the guidelines strung through the main passages of most caves.

Robinson's family said he was obsessive about his attention to safety. Simon, McDonald said, "has always been very careful."

But clearly, McDonald said, the two made mistakes. After entering, they would have squeezed through the chimney that Clesi compares to the narrow part of an hourglass, and into the Ballroom.

At its base, about 170 feet down, they entered the downstream channel, swimming toward the coast, and continued through the Pit, where the tunnel narrows to the size of a doorway and descends steeply to 300 feet.

Heinerth said he could only speculate about the causes of drowning, but he said Simon may have veered away from the guideline to see if the narrow part of John's Pocket was an uncharted tunnel.

"It's very tempting to say, 'Let me just have a look around the corner,' " Heinerth said.

Burdened with four tanks and a scooter, it's possible Simon kicked up silt and lost his guideline.

From all appearances, Robinson was on his way out of the cave, but his air supply was out, probably because he had spent time looking for his partner.

"He just ran out of gas," Heinerth said.

One of the hardships of diving is that other cave divers are the only qualified searchers.

Divers from the Pasco and Hernando county recovery teams tried to find Simon and Robinson on Saturday afternoon.

Once they realized conditions were beyond their ability, they called on certified cave divers, 14 of whom had arrived by Sunday morning, ready to plunge into the 70-degree water.

Heinerth and a partner found Robinson on one of the first dives. But several more dives that day, performed by two-person teams, found no trace of Simon. Rain delayed the next day's search until 5 p.m. as Simon's family, gathered at the muddy edge of the sink, grew increasing anxious.

Heinerth said he tries to think only of the logistics of diving once he has begun a search.

"I focus on the mission," he said. "I turn off the wondering part of my mind."

But he admits that after he found Simon on Monday evening, during the long ascent, he was deeply saddened for Simon's wife and four children.

Close friends of lost divers usually don't join in the search, and for good reason, said McDonald, a friend of Simon's.

He has thought of nothing but the panicked last thoughts of his friend since he disappeared.

"Why do you think I haven't slept the last three days?" McDonald said.

"It's been driving me crazy because I was supposed to dive with them."

Eagle's Nest, besides being one of the most challenging dives, is one of the most accessible.

Now the question becomes whether the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which manages the property, might close it to divers.

As long as they don't, McDonald said, he will return.

"I'll dive it again. I will definitely dive it again. I have to get back in the water."

Caption: Scuba West owner Paul Heinerth; This everyday Hernando County pond conceals the entrance to the Eagle's Nest dive site, where two cave divers perished Saturday. CU: Drawing shows the Hernando County cave system and pond that conceals the entrance; to the Eagle's Nest dive site, includes a side view of cave system and an inset map; Photo: PHOTO, BRENDAN FITTERER; PHOTO, MAURICE RIVENBARK; DRAWING, AMANDA RAYMOND

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.
People:  Heinerth, Paul,  Simon, Craig,  Robinson, John,  McDonald, Mike,  Shariat, Abie
Section:  NATIONAL
Text Word Count  1121

Report: Divers' deaths an accident

Of few new details to emerge are that cocaine in one diver's system did not play a role and that the two may have been involved in a previous diving accident.

By DUANE BOURNE, Times Staff Writer
Published September 9, 2004

BROOKSVILLE - Lost and disoriented by blinding silt, one diver tried unsuccessfully to navigate his way out of the "Mount Everest" of underwater caves. Meanwhile, his partner became entangled in guide lines. Both men drowned after their tanks emptied of oxygen, an investigation has found.

The report released Wednesday by the Hernando County Sheriff's Office provides few new details about the drowning deaths of John Robinson Jr., 36, of St. Petersburg and his Spring Hill diving partner, Craig Simon, 44. The report doesn't assign blame or answer the question of which diver first ran into difficulty that June day at Eagle's Nest.

"They probably were looking for each other and ran out of air," Paul Heinerth, a Hudson dive shop owner, who recovered the bodies, said on Wednesday.

"If John did not look so long, he could have made it out. And if Craig was not caught in the silt, maybe he could have made it out. There is no way of knowing."

On June 12, Simon, who ran a landscaping business, and Robinson, an electrical engineer, went diving in the underwater caves at Eagle's Nest in the Bayport area.

Simon, a Bronx native, had been scuba diving for 22 years but discovered cave diving 21/2 years before his death.

On that afternoon, when Simon's wife, Beth-Ann, didn't hear from him, she called him and left a cell phone message. By 7 p.m. that evening, she called the Sheriff's Office. An hour and a half later, authorities told her that the men had not resurfaced.

Robinson's body was recovered the following day in an area called John's Pocket. But it took expert divers two days to find Simon's body entangled in guideline and another day to recover it.

After a three-month investigation, which included the examination of sophisticated diving computers used by the victims, investigators ruled the drowning was an accident, although toxicology tests performed on Simon showed evidence of cocaine use.

The 12-page report does not indicate how much cocaine was in Simon's system.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Deputy Donna Black said on Wednesday that drugs did not play a role in Simon's death, categorizing the incident as an accident.

According to the report, Beth-Ann Simon warned her husband not to dive with Robinson because the two were involved in a previous accident in which Craig Simon had to assist a panicky Robinson to the surface.

Craig Simon promised his wife he would not go out with Robinson again because he took risks, the report said, but he apparently changed his mind a week before their dive when Robinson told him that everyone else refused to dive with him.

Witnesses, who saw the men before they embarked on their fatal dive, told authorities they overheard Robinson and Simon discussing their plans and believed they used a mixture of chemicals that would allow 21/2 hours worth of air.

On the first full day of the search, divers found Robinson about 1,300 feet inside a cave. His equipment was operational, but both tanks were out of oxygen.

Larry Green of Fort White-based International Training Inc. inspected Robinson's computer and determined that he could have gotten confused by the silt kicked up from the cave floor and could not manage to find the exit. Robinson's body was found heading out, the report stated.

The next day, Heinerth and another diver found Simon's diving scooter buried in the cave's floor near a closet-sized room known as John's Pass.

Heinerth speculated on Wednesday that something may have happened to distort their visibility, causing both men to veer off their guideline and into an uncharted tunnel.

"When they lost sight of everything and anything, John went one way and found his way to cleaner water, but it took too much time," Heinerth said. "Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, Craig was also in the silt and found himself tangled. We'll never know for sure, but something convinced them to go off the line and go into that room."

Neither Simon's widow, Beth-Ann, nor Robinson's father, John Robinson Sr., could be reached for comment about the report.

Duane Bourne can be reached at 352 754-6114 or dbourne@sptimes.com