The two divers were 120 feet underwater in a Pasco County sinkhole before dawn Thursday when through the murky water they saw a startling sight: an upside-down car with what appeared to be a body inside. That car, lying on a bed of silt under an overhang, as well as a second car a few feet away, were the focus of attention for more than a dozen police divers working in the cold, brackish water though the day Thursday.
Authorities wouldn't speculate on the identity of the body, but relatives of an 85-year-old Port Richey man, Fritz Geszti, who has been missing since March, said they had been warned that a license plate divers took from the first car was registered to Geszti.
The sinkhole, called Palm Sink, is about 50 feet downhill from U.S. 19 in Hudson. A guardrail blocks the shortest path from the highway to the sinkhole, but police said it is possible to drive around the guardrail.
Rudy Dornemann, the nephew of the missing man, said that in his later years Geszti "didn't feel comfortable driving, particularly on busy streets. He would cross where he didn't have to make complicated turns."
Geszti, who in recent months had suffered from spells of disorientation, "really didn't like to drive far from home," Dornemann said. Geszti had lived alone on Fillmore Avenue outside Port Richey, two and a half miles from Palm Sink, since his wife died two years ago.
The two people who discovered the car had been practicing night-diving techniques. They notified the Pasco County Sheriff's Office about 3 a.m. Details about the second car, or its owner, were not known late Thursday.
By 10 a.m. deputies had requested assistance from divers with the Hillsborough and Citrus County sheriff's offices. A local car dealership sent over a 1986 Oldsmobile Cutlass, the same kind of car Geszti had been driving when he disappeared, and divers practiced attaching harnesses on the underside of the car in a parking lot near Palm Sink.
For safety reasons, the Pasco County Sheriff's Office was limiting the time divers spent at the bottom of Palm Sink to five minutes, according to sheriff's spokesman Jon Powers. Immersion at such a depth requires a gradual ascent to prevent decompression sickness, also known as the bends.
Palm Sink is "not an enjoyable place to visit," according to Paul Heinerth of Hudson, a professional diver who raised a stolen car from the sinkhole about seven years ago. At 65 degrees, it's cold for a Florida sinkhole, and the chemicals and silt in the water make for very poor visibility, usually less than 5 feet, he said.
There are no fish at the bottom, only tires and garbage, Heinerth said. Dissolved hydrogen sulfide makes the water smell and taste like rotten eggs, he added.
Sheriffs' deputies stopped work about 5:30 p.m. They said they planned to resume work at 8 a.m. today _ first to try to remove the body, then to use air bags to maneuver the car out from under the ledge and to the surface, Powers said. He added: "It's a heck of a lot harder and more dangerous than it sounds."
Fritz Geszti last was seen by neighbors March 20, driving from his home in the Cutlass. He had been found wandering in Pinellas County in December, and authorities returned him home then. Workers at restaurants that Geszti visited shortly before his disappearance told Pasco deputies that Geszti would sometimes come in and order the same meal several times in the same day.
Geszti was born in Hungary and emigrated in his 20s, according to his nephew Dornemann, an archaeologist who recently moved to Baltimore from Wisconsin. Geszti worked as a domestic and as an aircraft factory worker on Long Island before he retired to Florida about 20 years ago with his French-born wife, Gabrielle.
"After his wife died he was really down," Dornemann said. Geszti recently had been prone to fits of forgetfulness. At times "he had a problem finding his car. . . . I was concerned about his driving," Dornemann said.
Dornemann recalled the 5-foot-2 Geszti as "fun-loving," with a "twinkle in his eye" when their families were living next door to each other on Long Island. But the last time they met, almost three years ago, Geszti "had aged considerably."