Thursday, April 26, 2018
Public safety

Two die while exploring caves at treacherous Eagle's Nest diving area in Weeki Wachee

Two divers from Fort Lauderdale died Sunday when they failed to resurface during an outing at a spring near Weeki Wachee where nearly a dozen people now have died, Hernando County deputies say.

Deputies say the bodies of Patrick Peacock and Chris Rittenmeyer were recovered Monday morning near the Eagle's Nest dive area after they disappeared Sunday afternoon.

According to deputies, the two men — experienced divers who several times previously had explored the caves at Eagle's Nest — arrived Sunday along with Justin Blakely for a three-day outing.

FROM 2009: Drowning shows Eagle Nest Sink underwater caves in Hernando County are dangerous — even to skilled divers

The divers entered the water around 2 p.m., deputies said, and Blakely — the least experienced of the divers — remained close to the surface while Peacock and Rittenmeyer explored the caves, which contain a mile of passages, one more than 300 feet deep.

Deputies said the men had planned to check in with Blakely at a predetermined location at 3 p.m., but did not show up.

Blakely checked back every 30 minutes but was unable to locate divers, so he notified authorities around 6 p.m., deputies said.

Dive crews could not locate the men Sunday night, but their bodies were found Monday morning after the search resumed after 9 a.m., deputies said.

They were found near each other in about 260 feet of water, in a complex area of the cave system, deputies said.

Autopsies are being conducted to determine the cause of death, deputies said.

Eagle's Nest is in the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area, a few miles north of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. The underwater caves are known in diving circles as the "Grand Canyon" for their stunning views, extreme depth and remote location.

Before Sunday, at least eight divers had died there since 1981, most recently in 2013, when a father and son drowned during a Christmas Day excursion. The site was closed to divers from 1999 to 2003.

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