Jun 14, 2004

1 Dead, 1 Missing After Cave Dive


WEEKI WACHEE - Nearly a year after Eagle's Nest pond reopened to scuba diving after a ban of several years, a two- man expedition on Saturday ended in the death of a St. Petersburg man, the Hernando County Sheriff's Office said. A Spring Hill diver remained missing late Sunday.

The body of 36-year-old John H. Robinson Jr., of 10200 Gandy Blvd. N., No. 324, St. Petersburg, was recovered about 3 p.m. Sunday, sheriff's Lt. Joe Paez said. Divers found him about 1,000 feet into the pond's underwater cave system, Paez said.

Authorities from Hernando, Pasco and Citrus counties were assisted by 12 to 14 civilian cave divers who conducted three dives Sunday before suspending the search for 44- year-old Craig Simon, of 10123 Cara St., Spring Hill, until 8 a.m. today.

Robinson and Simon went cave diving about 1 p.m. Saturday, Paez said. A friend on land became concerned when he didn't see the men by 3:30 p.m., when he called 911.

Sheriff's office divers searched Saturday, but the team was unsuccessful and called off the hunt at sunset, Paez said.

Robinson and Simon were certified cave divers, Paez said. However, the pond's underwater caverns, which descend as deep as 300 feet and require divers to take multiple tanks filled with a mixture of gas and compressed air, pose a formidable challenge to even experienced scuba enthusiasts.

``Eagle's Nest opens into a big cave system reaching thousands of feet,'' Paez said. ``The second body could be so far inside that it could remain unrecovered.''

Robinson was found with the appropriate equipment, but his main and secondary tanks were empty, Paez said. The medical examiner's office will conduct an autopsy to determine whether physical ailments posed a problem for him.

Civilian divers aided the recovery effort because of the highly specialized and advanced certification needed for cave diving. Paez said law enforcement dive teams, which mainly make recoveries from shallow depths, likely don't have such expertise.

``Both these men were known certified cave divers, and both were known to members of this organization'' of divers, Paez said. ``This was a tight fellowship. These group of guys look at it as one of their own. They've all said, `We're here because it could've been me down there.' ''

Paez said this isn't the first time bodies have been recovered from the spectacular but dangerous cave system.

Diving at Eagle's Nest was banned in August 1999, when the Southwest Florida Water Management District bought the land. The pond reopened in July after much lobbying by cave diving organizations.

Several years ago, a high school senior certified in open-water diving was lured by the illustrious underwater site, Paez said. He entered the caves through a sinkhole and died in the process, Paez said.

Reporter Patricia Kim can be reached at (813) 259-8402.

Jun 16, 2004

Complex Caves Prove Deadly


WEEKI WACHEE - Two cave divers who failed to resurface from an outing in the Eagle's Nest underwater maze Saturday were experienced members of their fraternity who did a number of things by the book.

They had the proper certification and carried propulsion scooters and tanks with a compressed air- helium mixture, which in the proper blend eliminates the risk of nitrogen narcosis, a euphoric sensation that occurs when a diver stays too deep too long. That can lead to drowning.

However, poor visibility and a confusing section of the caves might have caused the two to drop their submersible, battery-powered scooters, and they might have strayed from a permanent line that shows the way in and out of the system, one would-be rescuer said Monday.

On Monday afternoon, divers found the body of Craig Simon of Spring Hill, who turned 44 a week ago. Hernando County sheriff's Lt. Joe Paez told WLFA, News Channel 8, that recovery efforts were expected to go through the night.

The body of John H. Robinson Jr., 36, of St. Petersburg, was found Sunday, 800 to 1,000 feet into the caves at a depth of more than 200 feet, said Bill Oestreich, a 17-year veteran cave diver and owner of Bird's Underwater in Crystal River.

Robinson's two tanks were out of air, said Oestreich, who helped with Sunday's search.

``He didn't have his scooter, ... and at that depth and distance in, he would have needed his buddy or his scooter to get out.''

Most rooms and tunnels ``have [guide] lines on the floor for divers to watch as they scooter in,'' said Oestreich's wife, Diane, also a cave diver.

``But one room in there has it [a guide line] on the ceiling, and [the room] is as wide as U.S. 19. It's easy to lose sight of it, and the visibility is poor.''

That can cause a diver to become disoriented and run out of air.

This isn't the first time Eagle's Nest has taken the lives of experienced divers.

In December 1981, the body of Crystal River diving instructor Jim Bentz was found at a depth of 250 feet. Bentz, 32, a trained rescue diver, died while trying to save 29-year- old Terri Collins of Gainesville. She also died.

Brent Potts, a 29-year-old diving instructor and experienced cave diver from Tallahassee, died Aug. 5, 1990, at a depth of about 200 feet.

A Web site devoted to Eagle's Nest - www.floridacaves.com/eagles.htm - was updated Saturday to note this weekend's accident.

It describes the dive as one for vastly experienced divers because of its depth and distance from help: The sinkhole's entrance is four miles into the woods and difficult to access.

Eagle's Nest was closed to divers for four years while it was owned by Southwest Florida Water Management District.

It was reopened in July when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission took over management.

Joy Hill, a commission spokeswoman, said the site is closed pending completion of the search, but it's too early to tell whether access would be changed.

Some cave diving sites warn that an accident such as this could close it permanently.

Bill Oestreich said cave diving, which is done in a number of spots in north Central Florida, is for safety-conscious divers willing to adventure beyond spring, river or open-water diving.

He teaches prospective cave divers five things to avoid accidents.

``Proper training, have a contingency guide to reach open water and reserve two- thirds of your air for the exit,'' he said. ``In the worst case, I want to get out.''

Also, ``Stay within the depth limits of the kind of [air] you're breathing. Helium is a much lighter gas, ... and it eliminates narcosis. No. 5, every diver in your party should have at least three lights, and if one diver in my group loses one light, the dive is called off. Nothing is worth risking life.''

Most scuba divers must complete at least eight days of training beyond open-water certification before they are certified as cave divers, he said, adding that cave dives aren't times to be macho or a kamikaze.

``But we don't think these guys were like that. Both knew what they were doing.''

In addition to lights and scooters, he said, ``Cave divers should have double air tanks and backup reels or lines.''

He said Eagle's Nest is a beautiful cave that's not especially dangerous, ``But anything that deep and long can be a bad thing. You need to stay within your comfort level. When that voice starts talking to you about not being in there, don't wait until it starts screaming.

``Get out.''

Tribune researchers Michael Messano, Jody Habayeb and Kathy Winter and Hernando Today reporter Cliff Hightower contributed to this report. Reporter Jim Tunstall can be reached at (352) 628-5558.

Jun 15, 2004

State agency mulls closing Eagle's Nest


WEEKI WACHEE - While divers worked to recover the body of a 44-year-old Spring Hill cave diver Tuesday, officials with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission discussed whether the underwater cave where the man drowned would be permanently shut down.
Divers recovered the body of Craig Simon of 10123 Cara St. late Tuesday afternoon.
Simon and his diving partner, John H. Robinson Jr., 36, of St. Petersburg, had been missing since Saturday afternoon when a friend alerted authorities that the duo had not returned from their dive.
Robinson was found Sunday afternoon and recovered from the underground cave, called the Eagle's Nest, where the two men were diving.
Divers found Simon late Monday afternoon and began preparing for the body to be recovered from the cave.
Lt. Joe Paez, information officer for the sheriff, said divers called off recovery operations Monday afternoon around 8:30 p.m. because of darkness.
Divers moved Simon from where he was found to a position right underneath the entrance of the cave.
"It's an easier dive now," Paez said.
Divers finally left the water around 11 p.m. Monday, he said.
Recovery personnel went back into the water about 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to begin the process of bringing the body out. It took about three hours to recover it from the water, Paez said.
Simon was found in close proximity to where Robinson was found, almost 1,100 feet inside the cave at a depth of around 200 feet, Paez said.
Both men were certified cave divers and both were wearing the proper equipment needed for cave diving.
On Tuesday, a 12 to14 man team of divers went into the cave, relaying nitrogen bottles to two point men in an effort to stay in the water as long as possible to search for Simon.
Civilian certified cave divers, along with divers from the Pasco and Citrus county sheriff's offices, helped in trying to find the Spring Hill man.
The Eagle's Nest is world-renown in the cave driving community for its natural beauty. It's located in a natural pond just a few miles north of State Road 550.
It was closed for diving in August 1999 when the Southwest Florida Water Management District bought the land. The pond was later reopened last July after divers lobbied to have it open again.
It was placed under the management of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Gary Morse, spokesman for Florida Fish & Wildlife, said Tuesday the commission has not made a decision on whether the cave would be closed down once more.
"There's discussion, but there's nothing one way or the other as far as Eagle's Nest is concerned," Morse said.
A Web site dedicated to Eagle's Nest - www.floridacaves.com/eagles.htm - called for the cave to remain open.
"This is not a case of inept children or untrained individuals doing something of which they were seemingly unaware of the risks," the Web site said.
There were other caves in the past that were closed, barred or dynamited as a "knee jerk" reaction to tragedies that occurred there, the Web site says. The Web site's author said he believed the commission would keep it open.
"Each of them could just as easily bar access and be done with it," the Web site said. "However, I believe that they too see something worth making an effort to protect and enjoy as does the cave diving community."

Jun 19, 2004

Watery Caves Of Eagle's Nest To Stay Open


WEEKI WACHEE - The state has decided not to close to the public the underwater caves in rural Hernando County where two divers died last weekend.

Eagle's Nest is very deep and remote, and divers know that they are taking on some risk when they dive there, a state spokesman said Friday.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which manages the land, concluded that the caves should remain available to divers who want to take on the challenge.

``There are risks in cave diving, period,'' commission spokesman Gary Morse said.

Eagle's Nest is in a natural pond a few miles north of State Road 550 near Weeki Wachee. The site in west Hernando was closed for diving in August 1999 when the Southwest Florida Water Management District bought the land, but it was reopened in July after divers lobbied for it.

John H. Robinson Jr., 36, of St. Petersburg, and Craig Simon, 44, of Spring Hill, failed to resurface June 12 while diving there. Divers who volunteered to help the Hernando County Sheriff's Office found Robinson's body Sunday and Simon's body Monday.

Paul Heinerth, a Pasco County dive shop owner who joined in the search, said Friday he was glad the state decided against trying to close Eagle's Nest, which, he said, is world famous among cave divers.

Heinerth, owner of Hudson's Scuba West, said he would like to see a memorial erected at the entrance to Eagle's Nest to commemorate the two divers.

A small cross or plaque also would serve as a sober reminder that cave diving can be dangerous, he said.

Lt. Joe Paez said the sheriff's office had to rely on volunteer divers because the bodies were at a depth of about 300 feet and about 1,100 feet into the caverns, the main part of which is shaped like an hourglass.

Diving at those depths requires training and equipment that Hernando sheriff's divers didn't have, he said.

One of the volunteer divers experienced problems after helping in the search and was taken to a hospital as a precaution, he added.

A Web site of Florida's underwater caves describes Eagle's Nest, also known as Lost Sink, this way:

``Eagle's Nest is not a complex system in terms of a maze, though it still cannot be approached lightly because of the simple fact of its extreme depth. Just getting to the site requires a 9-11 mile drive from the nearest paved road. It is a beautiful system that can be like floating down [an 8-foot] diameter chimney into a room that could practically swallow half an arena [like the Tampa Ice Palace]. Going through the system would be similar to walking through the darkened sports arena with little but a handheld flashlight ...''

Eagle's Nest has claimed the lives of other divers, including in December 1981, when the body of Crystal River diving instructor Jim Bentz was found at a depth of 250 feet. Bentz, 32, a trained rescue diver, died trying to save Terri Collins, 29, of Gainesville, who also died. In August 1990, the body of Brent Potts, 29, a diving instructor and experienced cave diver, was found at a depth of about 200 feet.

Reporter Paul Quinlan of Hernando Today contributed to this report. Reporter Dave Nicholson can be reached at (813) 754-3765.