PONCE DE LEON — As the sky went black, Ben McDaniel walked down a narrow dock and slipped into the clear water of Vortex Spring. It was hot on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2010, with a high of 90 and a weak breeze. The 68-degree spring felt good, even if Ben wore a dive mask, fins and a wet suit.
The handsome, athletic 30-year-old had been diving in Florida for the past few months, trying to escape a mess back home in Memphis. A failed business, a broken marriage, a dead brother.
Ben's folks had suggested he move to their Santa Rosa Beach condo, just Ben and his chocolate Lab, Spooner, to clear his head in the water and sunshine.
He dove earlier that day, poking around in the cave at the bottom of the spring basin, as though he were preparing for something. At 6-feet-2 and 220 pounds, he was hard to miss. Several people noticed him that day testing equipment and sitting on the bank, jotting in his dive log.
He switched on his lights as he began his descent into Vortex Spring. Two divers saw him coming, lights aglow, his white helmet surging toward the mouth of the cave, toward a sign that said STOP, toward another bearing a picture of the Grim Reaper and the words: GO NO FARTHER. THERE'S NOTHING IN THIS CAVE WORTH DYING FOR.
And then he was gone.
• • •
No one noticed the GMC pickup in the parking lot Thursday. Some 30,000 divers, swimmers, campers come through Vortex Spring a year, and it's busy on hot summer days.
On Friday morning, Eduardo Taran, a longtime employee of Vortex Spring, one of the men who had seen Ben descending Wednesday night, called the sheriff.
The deputies treated the spring like a crime scene, stringing yellow police tape around the perimeter and parking an ambulance nearby. They found Ben's wallet, which held his driver's license, his diver certifications and some cash. His dive log was detailed. He had mapped the cave.
Holmes County Sheriff's Capt. Harry Hamilton thought it looked like Ben had prepared to make a deep dive. Hamilton needed help.
Word spread through the diving community. They knew Vortex Spring, between the wire grass of south Alabama and the sugar-sand beaches of the gulf coast, could be deadly. Thirteen people died at Vortex in the 1980s, when cave diving was young. Those numbers fell as safety improved. Now, only about a half-dozen die a year in underwater caves worldwide, and most are open-water divers not familiar with the dangers. Caves can collapse. Chambers can disorient and steal one's sense of direction. Silt can blind. Tight restrictions can snare hoses, tanks and people.
The recovery divers who gathered to look for Ben knew those risks. They had decades of experience and some knew Vortex well. They knew the deeper you go the more treacherous it becomes.
The mouth of the cave starts about 50 feet beneath the surface. From there a narrowing tunnel descends into the darkness. About 300 feet into the cave, the tunnel is sealed by a gate. Divers must show the proper certification at the dive shop to get the key. From there, the cave grows challenging even for the skillful. Some tight spots measure 10 inches from floor to ceiling. Divers must wear tanks on their sides to squeeze through.
The divers disappeared beneath the surface Friday as the crowd on the bank swelled. They made a discovery: two decompression tanks, which divers use as they ascend to avoid decompression sickness.
The tanks belonged to Ben McDaniel.
In teams, the divers squirmed into the cave — each pushing deeper than the previous — scouring nooks and crannies along the way. The diving was dangerous and messages piled up on diving chat boards.
Lots of prayers going out for the team.
Prayers offered here as well for the recovery team, family, and all involved for tonight and tomorrow.
There was no other sign of Ben as midnight neared. They'd have to postpone the recovery. They needed divers with the skill to penetrate the far reaches.
Ben must have gone deeper than anyone expected.
The mapped portion of the cave ends at a narrow restriction about 150 feet deep and 1,500 feet of mostly horizontal penetration, about the length of five football fields. The tiny hole — as small as 10 inches from floor to ceiling — is the last known restriction. Some divers say it's impassable. Some say you can get in, but you won't get out.
On the official map, it simply says: Exploration continues.
• • •
Shelby and Patty McDaniel were inside their big farmhouse in Collierville, Tenn., near Memphis, when a neighbor called. A sheriff's deputy was at the gate. It was Friday morning, around 11.
Patty knew something was wrong. She tried to walk but her knees gave and she collapsed on a bench in the foyer.
They found Ben's truck, the deputy said. They can't find Ben.
Ben was the oldest of their three boys, a confident kid who held Patty's hand in public until the sixth grade, who learned how to play The Old Rugged Cross on the piano and sang it for her at Christmas. Patty used to check Ben out of school so they could hang out together. They ate dinner as a family. They took vacations to climb rocks in Arkansas or sunbathe on the beach in Destin, where Ben chased fish through the shallows. He told his folks he wanted to build his house on top of water, so he'd always be close.
He started scuba diving when he was 15. He'd test out his tanks in the family pool.
Shelby, 68, and Patty, 62, had just seen Ben on Monday in Memphis. He was loving the Florida sabbatical, diving at every opportunity and trying to land a job as an instructor. He had taken a survey course and was mapping the cave at Vortex.
He seemed happier than he'd been in two years. Back home, he'd faced hardship: his construction company failed, he lost his house and his wife left. What hurt the most was when his brother died.
Paul was 22, the youngest. He loved Ben, looked up to him. The two were always running off together to go rock climbing.
In late 2008, Ben found Paul unconscious at home from a stroke. He tried to clear Paul's air passage, then sat with him in the hospital, then mourned him as they played Jeff Buckley's Hallelujah at the service.
He struggled to shake the grief. Something as simple as a Citizen Cope song would send him to his room in tears.
But that sadness seemed to be passing.
He reconnected over sushi with his girlfriend, Emily Greer, a 33-year-old wetlands biologist. He spent every night with her, talking about the future, about starting a live-aboard dive company.
He promised to care for his parents as they grew older.
He wrote a letter to his mother, thanking her for giving him the chance to come to Florida, to reinvent himself.
He said, "I love y'all," and drove away.
Now his parents were breaking the news to Emily, packing in a blur, driving south in silence to find their son's body and bring him home.
• • •
Edd Sorenson stood aboard a yacht in the Bahamas, in the middle of an expedition, when his wife texted. Diver missing. Searches Friday and Saturday unsuccessful.
If there's a go-to recovery diver in Florida, it's Sorenson, a lean and muscular scuba-shop owner who has notched somewhere close to 2,500 dives. Sorenson goes where others can't.
He was bombarded with calls from recovery divers when he got back on Sunday.
Nobody without training could have gone farther than I got, one diver said.
I almost died in there, said another.
Even an official with the International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery told him not to go.
Sorenson suited up on Monday. To save air, he used an underwater scooter to quickly maneuver through the tunnel. Sorenson abandoned the scooter when the cave narrowed and worked his way deeper, through tiny passages, like shimmying under a car, under water. At tight restrictions, belly on the floor and back to the limestone ceiling, Sorenson had to turn his head sideways to squeeze through.
About 1,700 feet into the dive — 200 feet past the end of the map — Sorenson saw marks on the limestone where another recovery diver had been earlier. He inched ahead another 20 feet.
If Ben McDaniel, who was larger than Sorenson, had come this far, there would be signs. There would be marks on the limestone where his helmet or tanks scraped the cave ceiling. There would be marks in the clay bottom because McDaniel would have shed his tanks and swum with one extended in front of his head. There would be extra tanks left behind for the journey out. If Ben were dead, there would be signs from nature, increased activity from aquatic scavengers.
What Edd Sorenson saw was nothing. No limestone scrapes. No clay impressions. No feeding fish or eels.
No Ben McDaniel.
• • •
Capt. Harry Hamilton was having trouble sleeping. The 49-year-old Holmes County sheriff's deputy never guessed this would drag on so long. He likes closed cases.
Weeks had passed since Ben McDaniel was last seen, and the pressure to find him was mounting. A Panhandle news station aired a story: Experts Don't Believe Missing Diver is Actually in Cave at Vortex Spring.
"No one else could have gotten to the end of the cave . . . without having extra bottles in the water," the regional coordinator of the International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery told the reporter. "As small as the environment gets the further you get back, you can't carry those bottles through that."
Some of the best divers in the country had searched more than a quarter mile of cave. They surfaced with a consistent theory: He's not in there.
If he wasn't in the cave, Capt. Hamilton wondered, where was he?
Shelby and Patty McDaniel appreciated what the volunteer divers had done. They drove south with hope every time a dive was organized — in August, September, October, November — only to return home disappointed.
They had to trust the divers since they couldn't see the cave themselves. That was hard. A few days after Ben went missing, Patty felt like God was telling her Ben's soul was in heaven, with Paul, and his body was still in Vortex Spring.
The McDaniels called for divers brave enough to plunge deeper.
Name your price, Shelby told them.
Some were offended. Some worried about treasure hunters getting killed.
The McDaniels wondered whether Ben might be buried under silt in a nook they had missed. The divers explained that would be like lying down in your front yard in scuba gear, buried under leaves. You'd notice.
The Sheriff's Office borrowed an underwater camera. Shelby and Patty and Ben's girlfriend, Emily, stared at a monitor on the bank, watching a new world unfold, searching the screen for signs of Ben. But the camera's cord kept snagging. After eight emotional hours, the camera made it only about 1,300 feet into the cave.
The McDaniels refused to quit.
"We will do everything in our power to find Ben," Shelby said.
They hired Steve Keene, 58, who had spent more than 100 hours with a team mapping the cave in 2003, the man who laid the dive line to the end.
He made seven dives in search of Ben. He apologized to Shelby McDaniel.
"We went through the whole cave," Keene said. "If he's in there, I don't know where he'd be."
• • •
Capt. Hamilton ran through the evidence.
If Ben were stuck in the cave, his body would have progressed through a host of postmortem changes: washerwoman's skin, bloating, marbling, skin slippage, discoloration, disarticulation and, finally, skeletonization.
Hamilton had requested two teams of cadaver dogs to the spring. One reacted strongly to the water, indicating the presence of decomposing human remains. The other reacted as well, suggesting the possibility.
But the man who tests the water at the spring for the state and county health departments sampled the water about 30 times over several months, and none of the tests indicated a spike in bacteria consistent with decomposition.
"We couldn't find a trace of anything," said Rick Russo, 38, a state licensed water and wastewater operator. "I hate it for the parents. But to say a man is down there, in my opinion, that's false."
If Ben died in the cave and washed out with the natural flow, his body wouldn't have made it far past the mouth of the spring. Hamilton had called out a helicopter and the sheriff's mounted posse to search the swamps and forest and the areas downstream. Nothing.
Tracking dogs found no trace.
What about foul play?
The day Ben vanished, a diver argued with some teenagers who were drinking. Could they have come back for revenge?
The owner of Vortex Spring, Lowell Kelly, told investigators that a man, wild-eyed and about 35, showed up at the dive shop after sundown that day looking inebriated. He asked if it was too late to go diving. Could he have abducted Ben?
The McDaniels tried in vain to think of anyone who might want to hurt Ben. He didn't have enemies.
Besides, if someone abducted Ben when he came out of the spring, there was no sign of a struggle, and nothing on the dive shop's security cameras. They would have taken a large man loaded down in full scuba gear. None of Ben's dive equipment was found — no fin, no tank, no nozzles, no mask. And why take him without his wallet, which held $1,100 in cash?
What about the two divers who were in the cave after dark, Eduardo Taran and Chuck Cronin, the last two to see Ben?
Since Ben went missing, Cronin had returned to the cave again and again to look. The tall, thin man with a bushy black mustache knew the gin-clear water better than most; he'd been diving the spring since 1975. Cronin had made good friends with Taran. The two dove almost every Wednesday, like they were the night they saw Ben.
Cronin told investigators that Ben had been bugging him the day he went missing. Ben knew a lot about diving, and he had all the right gear, but he struck Cronin as a hot shot, full of himself.
He told the deputies that he and Taran also noticed that someone tampered with the gate, apparently to access the cave without a key. They suspected it was Ben, who didn't have the proper certification to pass through.
After they saw Ben that night, Cronin told the investigators, they went to Taran's for coffee. Then Cronin went home. He didn't hear anything else until Friday.
The investigators asked the men to take polygraph tests. They both passed.
Cronin had a theory that many divers shared: Ben could be sitting on a beach somewhere, sipping margaritas. Capt. Hamilton wondered himself. Could Ben have wanted to disappear?
There was the failed marriage and financial trouble that forced him out of his house. Ben also owed the IRS $48,861 and the state $1,177 in unpaid taxes. Quite a bit of baggage for a 30-year-old.
Could he have been running from all that, trying to free the clutches of debt and failure? Could he have staged the decompression bottles, then ascended into a new life?
If Ben planned an extravagant hoax, he had done so without a trace. Hamilton monitored his bank activity, phone activity, e-mail, Facebook. There was nothing. In an age in which we leave traces at toll booths and Walmart and a thousand other places, Ben had simply vanished.
Even if he could pull that off, would he?
Would he abandon Emily Greer, the girlfriend who had helped him through hardship?
Would he leave his dog, Spooner, alone and hungry inside his condo?
The McDaniels have considered the theory that their son is not in the cave. But Ben saw how Paul's death hurt them. They know, beyond doubt, that the boy they raised wouldn't put them through that again.
They've thought about something else the divers said. If Ben went through the hole with just two tanks, he was smart enough to know he wouldn't have enough air to make it all the way out. If he went forward, he knew there was no going back.
Maybe he wasn't running from something. Maybe he was running to something.
• • •
Vortex Spring has returned to normal.
The police tape came down long ago. Kids splash in the shallows and moms read on the bank. Divers plunge into the cave for photos. The talk of a missing diver has faded.
Shelby and Patty McDaniel aren't sure how to move on. They lead a grief class at church, but this is new. Paul's death stung, but they felt that God used it to help others. They even met the man who received Paul's heart. Patty cried as she held a stethoscope to his chest.
Without Ben's body, without knowing what happened, that kind of closure is difficult.
"We want Ben home," Shelby says.
They held a memorial and invited Ben's friends. They tucked mementos and notes in a suitcase and buried it near Paul.
"My precious, precious Ben," Patty wrote. "There are no words to describe how my heart hurts."
On Friday, Ben would have turned 31. Ben's friends and family held a "BENefit" at the family's home to raise money to go toward a $10,000 reward to anyone with information that results in locating him.
Capt. Hamilton remains perplexed, but there's not much he can do. He might make another attempt with cadaver dogs, or another recovery dive. Perhaps a piece of equipment will break free.
"We don't know where he's at," Hamilton said. "That's the long and short of it. He prepared to make that dive and he did make that dive. We don't have any indication that he resurfaced."
He'd love to give the family closure. He'd love to close the only missing person case open in Holmes County.
• • •
Chuck Cronin is 99 percent sure Ben's not in the cave. But he still looks for Ben on his Wednesday dives. Not for the money. For the answers.
The mystery occupies his thoughts, oscillating between the possibilities: Ben's in the hole, or he staged his death. Think about one long enough and it leads to the other.
Standing near the spring one night, under a blanket of stars, he said he could relate to the urge to push deeper into the abyss, to squeeze through the last restriction, to see what no other has ever seen. Because every time you challenge yourself, every time you overcome your fear of the dark and tight spaces and death, you resurface more alive, born into a new world. The air smells cleaner. Food tastes better. Sex is sweeter.
Who knows what exists at the end of the line? Maybe it narrows to nothing, or maybe it opens to another chamber, another world, a far away place that few believe Ben could go. But the human spirit can do amazing things.
• • •
Ben's girlfriend knows the answer is out there. A true-crime television buff, Emily Greer has created a working timeline. She rehashes evidence, replays that last week she spent with Ben in Memphis, just before he returned to Florida. She thinks about their dates, the canoe trip and putt-putt and mudding adventure. She thinks about the time she found Ben on his bed crying about Paul, and she laid on top of him and kissed his face. She replays their last morning together, every second of it, searching for clues.
She doesn't believe Ben had the capacity to walk away from life, from his parents, from her. She doesn't believe Ben would go through the hole knowing he could not return. His ego was too big.
It's hard to move on when you have so many questions. She tried to date. Eight months later, she takes pills to sleep and depression medication to function. Still, she cries.
She keeps going back to the cave. She's only seen it on a television monitor, the day they sent the camera down.
She's been thinking lately about what it might look like down there in the dark. She may never get over this without knowing what's past the last restriction.
She dives, not in caves, not yet. But she could. She's much smaller than Ben. She could fit.
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8650.