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Underwater cave's charms fool divers

This sinkhole may look small but beneath the surface is a tunnel that leads to a web of passages stretching out thousands of feet. The property has a locked gate, and the underwater caves are off-limits to all but the most experienced divers.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

This sinkhole may look small but beneath the surface is a tunnel that leads to a web of passages stretching out thousands of feet. The property has a locked gate, and the underwater caves are off-limits to all but the most experienced divers.

HUDSON — The swimming hole at School Sink is no bigger than the average backyard pool. The water is tea-colored from tannic acid and full of silt. Down at the bottom is a hole into a tunnel, one person wide, that snakes down about 45 feet to a web of passages stretching out thousands of feet.

If a diver takes his eyes off the yellow guide line along the surface of the rock, he could become hopelessly lost in an instant.

Two men went on a cave dive here in northwest Pasco County this week and died in the dark waters. Joseph Christian Hartranft, a 52-year-old retired Navy man from Brandon, and Yessic Cozay Spencer, 42, a Marine from Gainesville who was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base, were found by a recovery team Wednesday evening.

One of them was floating less than 50 feet from the surface; the other was farther down inside a tunnel, the Pasco Sheriff's Office said.

Authorities are still investigating the deaths, which are considered accidental.

Paul Heinerth, a veteran diver who organized the recovery effort Wednesday, said School Sink is considered an advanced cave because visibility is so limited. The nonprofit group that owns the property, the National Speleological Society, requires divers to have 100 safe dives logged.

Spencer, his father said, was a dive instructor. Beyond that, it's not clear what credentials and training he and Hartranft had.

But Heinerth, the School Sink property manager, said the men got the combination to the locked gate at the property under the pretense they were going to look around and empty the garbage.

"They weren't supposed to dive there," Heinerth said. "I guess the call of the wild was too much to ignore."

• • •

Hartranft grew up in the Atlanta area. He spent most of a 20-year career in the Navy as a communications specialist, retiring in 1995.

In retirement, he worked for U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base and for a Virginia software company.

He liked to baby his 1999 Land Rover Discovery, cleaning the dashboard and side panels with grease cleaner and a toothbrush, family members said.

He was a devoted father to daughters Abigail, 10, and Jacquelyn, 8. He was also an avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan.

He enjoyed computers and Tom Clancy novels. But nothing, it seemed, could take the place of diving. He explored the Oriskany, an 888-foot aircraft carrier sunk two years ago off the coast of Pensacola. Family members said he told his son it was one of his most enjoyable dives.

• • •

Spencer's father, Yessic Spencer Jr. of North Carolina, said he last spoke to his son on the phone a week ago.

"He was cheerful," the elder Spencer said. "He was always in a good mood. He had his head screwed on right."

He said Spencer was a diving instructor in Tampa and had a black belt in karate. The decorated Marine, a lieutenant colonel, had served in Iraq and was working at U.S. Central Command at MacDill.

Above all, Spencer was a family man, his dad said. His wife, Sherolyn, and two kids, 13-year-old Yvonne and 9-year-old Yessic IV, were his life. He served as an assistant cub master for his son's Pack 127.

A woman who answered the family's phone in Gainesville said Sherolyn Spencer wasn't ready to comment.

Spencer Jr. said his son called him every week just to chat as he drove from MacDill back to his home in Gainesville.

No more calls will be tough to get used to.

"We're going to really miss him," Spencer Jr. said. "We were just knocked off our feet."

• • •

In August, a 45-year-old woman who had been drinking went for a swim and drowned at School Sink, which is also known among divers as Wayne's World. Heinerth said there's an ongoing problem with people using the spot for swimming and drinking.

But he said the area is fenced off with a combination lock on the gate, and numerous "no trespassing" signs are posted.

"How do you keep someone that really wants to go in there out?" he said.

Dangerous as the cave is, it also holds great rewards. The system stretches west toward the Gulf of Mexico and east under the six lanes of U.S. 19, a busy hospital and golf course community. Animal bones millions of years old hide in the crevices, Heinerth said.

"It's art made by Mother Nature," he said.

He doesn't know what went wrong for Hartranft and Spencer.

"I suspect that there were some rules broken here," he said. "I'd be surprised if they were finished with their training."

Times staff writers Andrew Meacham, Kim Wilmath and Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

Underwater cave's charms fool divers 11/13/08 [Last modified: Saturday, November 15, 2008 6:46pm]
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