CHASSAHOWITZKA — Nearly 15 times, frantically, Steven Orosz plunged back into the warm spring-fed river and searched the shallow underwater cavern for his girlfriend, Amy Ryan.
He found nothing.
Kids regularly squirt through that short tunnel through the limerock; it seemed safe. Ryan had swam through it just minutes earlier. But on one trip just after 6 p.m. Sunday, the 22-year-old — set to graduate from the University of South Florida in just two weeks — never emerged.
"She just disappeared," Orosz said Monday afternoon, his voice trembling.
The tunnel's mouth is 8 feet wide and just under 10 feet deep; it runs 15 feet or so underwater to its 3-foot-wide exit, where Orosz expected Ryan to surface.
Beginning to end, it's a short swim. One full breath, down and kick. Sunshine streaks through the water from one side to the other. To friends who haven't negotiated the cavern before, people tell them, go to the light.
As an unidentified woman nearly hyperventilated, she told the Citrus County 911 operator a group of friends had been swimming at the cavern when Ryan didn't come back up.
"I don't understand why she's not there because we go through it all the time," the woman said, sobbing. "There's one way to go through it and we've been going through it and she's not there. She went down. We saw her go down, and now she's not there."
Within moments of her disappearance, rescue workers descended on the scene near Riviera Point. About 25 minutes after Ryan vanished, a Citrus County firefighter pulled her from a tight, 15-foot-long offshoot gap, where she had apparently turned and gotten lost.
The senior biology major was taken to Oak Hill Hospital in Spring Hill, where she was pronounced dead at 7:18 p.m.
A freckle-faced brunet from Palm Bay, she wore a bright, toothy smile. Ryan looked people in the eye and was easy to like; she had 508 Facebook friends.
She and Orosz, also 22, had dated since the New Year's holiday. "She was a perfect person," Orosz said. "She shouldn't have left us so soon."
Before they went to the Chassahowitzka, Ryan had been swimming in Crystal River all day with Orosz and another couple who were staying at a local family vacation home.
Jack Calbeck has lived in a house less than 200 yards from the popular cavern since 1979. He was sitting on his porch when he heard panic and yelling and ambulance sirens squeal.
"I heard a voice scream out, 'My girlfriend just died,' " he said. "It was horrible."
When rescue workers first arrived at the river, the county's dive team was still about 30 minutes away. Tom Fletcher, a firefighter and experienced diver, snatched a mask and a rope and a flashlight and plunged in.
"Somewhere between point A and point B, she made a wrong turn," he said. "She must have been disoriented."
Even with a flashlight, Fletcher could barely see her through the darkness. She was alive when he brought her up, but her skin was cold and blue.
The four friends were swimming without masks or snorkels, Fletcher said, adding that swimmers usually don't use diving gear in the area.
Store clerk Joyce Williams has worked at the Chassahowitzka River Campground for four years and said the cavern has long been popular with guests.
"Especially when the weather is nice like it is now," she said, "people are always swimming down there."
Since the late 1980s, county officials said, at least four cave-related deaths, including Ryan's, have been reported in the Chassahowitzka. None of the victims was cave-certified.
Calbeck quit swimming in that area about 15 years ago because it became too crowded and too overrun with people drinking alcohol, which is prohibited in that area.
He doesn't want to see the spring shut down, but hopes authorities will do something to prevent yet another tragedy.
"There's no regulation there," he said. "There's no control. There's no warning signs."
Calbeck recommended that officials place a grate over each end of the tunnel to prevent divers from getting caught. It would still allow swimming but would be far less dangerous.
One night last year, Fletcher said, the son of a firefighter drowned there.
Like that man, Ryan was the daughter of a firefighter. Her father, Bill Ryan, is a lieutenant with Brevard County Fire Rescue. One of her two older brothers also works there.
Stuart Silverman, dean of USF's Honors College, knew Ryan well. On Monday, Silverman met with Bill Ryan and his wife, Christine, who live in Palm Bay.
They were distraught. Silverman didn't know what to say, except to guarantee them that their daughter would still receive her degree posthumously.
Ryan, who maintained a 3.9 grade point average, was likely to graduate summa cum laude. Her sights, and heart, were set on medical school.
Just last week, Silverman said, Ryan was accepted to Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, which has a Bradenton campus.
He met Ryan four years ago, when she was a high school senior visiting college campuses. Even then, she wanted to go into medicine. The only hold up was deciding whether she wanted to be a nurse or a doctor.
"So she went around and shadowed doctors and talked to nurses," Silverman said. "She volunteered at clinics on campus."
Doctor, she decided.
Silverman knew she would excel.
"If I said to you that she's got sparkle, you'd know what I'd mean: the smile, enthusiasm," he said. "She'd be successful at anything she wanted to do."
News researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. John Woodrow Cox can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432.