The body of a man drawn into the lethal majesty of "one of the Mount Everests of cave diving" is recovered.
By DAN DeWITT and DUANE BOURNE
Published June 16, 2004
[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
Scuba West owner Paul Heinerth, who found the body of the missing diver, said the diver may have gone awry exploring an opening.
[Times photo: Maurice Rivenbark]
This everyday Hernando County pond conceals the entrance to the Eagle's Nest dive site, where two cave divers perished Saturday. The body of Craig Simon of Spring Hill was found Monday evening. The body of his dive partner, John H. Robinson Jr. of St. Petersburg, was recovered Sunday. Go to graphic
WEEKI WACHEE - 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 21/2 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 guide lines 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."