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Missing cave divers' bodies found in sinkhole

HUDSON — Just before 6 p.m. Wednesday, a rescue team slipped into a giant sinkhole in search of two underwater cave divers missing since Tuesday.

Less than a half-hour later, rescuers discovered two bodies.

One of the men was found about 50 feet from the surface, the other in a side tunnel farther down, said Pasco Sheriff's Office spokesman Kevin Doll.

Why the two divers perished was a mystery Wednesday night.

"They don't know exactly what went wrong at this point," Doll said.

Doll did not release the names, ages or hometowns of the divers, saying family members had not been notified.

He said the search began after someone filed a missing persons report for one of the divers in Hillsborough County.

Doll said the Pasco Sheriff's Office got a tip that the pair had gone diving at the site, known locally as "School Sink." The agency sent in a crew of contracted expert divers after they found a sport utility vehicle belonging to one of the missing divers near the scene.

School Sink is part of an underground aquifer in west Pasco with miles of caves and multiple entry points. The sinkhole is off an unpaved road in a wooded area near Old Dixie Highway.

The private property is owned by a local chapter of the National Speleological Society, which uses it for cave diving. The property has a locked gate, but neighbors said Wednesday that people can drive around it. Despite its "No Trespassing" signs, the property draws uninvited visitors, too, including a Hudson woman who drowned there in August.

Paul Heinerth, the group's property manager, told the Times in August that only the most experienced divers may try the cave, also dubbed "Wayne's World." Heinerth requires every diver to have completed at least 100 dives.

Doll said Wednesday night that preliminary information shows the two men did not possess the qualifications to be diving in School Sink. He would not comment on what kind of equipment they had.

But a nearby resident — and fellow diver — who believes she spoke with the two men before a dive about three weeks ago said they seemed well informed about diving.

Shannon Prack-Foster said she saw two men — one middle-aged, the other in his 30s — preparing to dive at the site one evening. She said authorities at the scene said her descriptions of the divers matched those of the two men recovered Wednesday.

"They seemed like very experienced divers," she said. "They had top-of-the-line equipment."

Prack-Foster, who said she had not been in School Sink in years, said she chatted with the two men about other underground caves around Florida. She said the older man told her he had explored the Hudson location about 20 times.

But anything can go wrong, she said, from equipment failure to disorientation once a diver gets in the caves. "It's unfortunate, but that's the risk of cave diving," she said.

Jacob Benedict, an 18-year-old neighbor, said he had once gone down about 70 feet into the sinkhole. After seeing television helicopters hovering over the scene, he rushed down to the site and stood behind the yellow crime scene tape.

"It's black, scary," he said of being underground. "It's hard because it's cramped."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Missing cave divers' bodies found in sinkhole 11/12/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 16, 2008 5:48pm]
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