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FRIENDS' DIVING TRIP TURNS INTO TERROR

Almost out of air, two divers surface 12 miles offshore. Their friend, and the boat, are gone.

Alex Spence and Jason Van Schooten were having no luck on their second dive of the morning.

The gulf waters 12 miles west of Clearwater were murky, the fish scarce and their scuba tanks almost out of air. Spence, 21, and Van Schooten, 22, signaled to each other that it was time to go up.

At the surface they met a diver's nightmare: Their boat was gone. The horizon was empty. They were alone.

Confusion turned to panic. Panic turned to sickness. They tried to stay calm, to keep talking.

But both shared a horrifying fear.

Is this it?

- - -

Ashley Thomson, 21, stared at the water from the 23-foot Dorado fishing boat. Little whitecaps began forming. The wind was picking up. At least 40 minutes had passed since her boyfriend, Van Schooten, and his friend had gone down.

Surely they were out of air.

She didn't even see bubbles. She looked at the time on her cell phone. She decided to give them 10 more minutes.

Ten minutes passed. She started to pull up the anchor.

Thomson felt the chain get lighter as she pulled up a broken metal ring.

The anchor had detached from the chain. She had been drifting.

How long? How far?

Where were they?

- - -

The three friends, all from Pinellas County, considered themselves experienced divers. Spence owned the boat and had been diving since he was a kid. Van Schooten, who has known Spence since he was about 12, had been on about 25 dives in the previous three weeks. Thomson had recently fallen in love with diving.

Shortly after sunrise on Aug. 26 they set out from the Seminole Marina, heading southwest toward Sand Key. They dropped anchor 12 miles offshore.

All three went in for a first dive, catching only a few mangrove snapper. Around 10:10 a.m., the men went for a second dive while Thomson stayed behind because of choppy water and poor visibility.

They did not use a positioning buoy. It would be a brief dive, straight down and back up.

Thomson, meanwhile, noticed the seas getting rougher. She felt the wind and saw a storm taking shape. She never noticed she was moving.

When she finally pulled up the broken anchor, she did not panic.

"I knew they were intelligent guys," she said. "I figured they'd know what to do."

Thomson had driven a boat, but didn't want to go anywhere. The boat had a GPS but she did not know how to use it. She didn't know the coordinates anyway.

She would wait.

- - -

The two friends began thinking about the worst.

"We just kept saying, 'We don't want to end up like those NFL players,'" Van Schooten said, referring to the four football players who disappeared in the gulf earlier this year. Three didn't return.

After 20 minutes, the men began dropping $1,800 in equipment: spear guns, diving weights, snorkels, tanks. They kept their whistles, diver-signal tubes and buoyancy compensators, which would help them stay afloat.

Less than an hour at the surface, the cramps started. The water was warm, about 87 degrees, but cool enough to drop body temperatures over several hours.

Suddenly, they saw a fishing boat, maybe 300 yards away. The men madly blew their whistles. They tried swimming to the boat.

The fishermen drifted away.

Spence and Van Schooten began talking fast, worried about drifting away from one another, remembering the NFL players and other stories of boating trips gone awry.

"We've got to calm down,'' they told each other.

- - -

It started to rain. Thomson thought about calling the Coast Guard. She looked at the VHF radio onboard.

Seagulls flew overhead, cooing in the distance. Oddly, she thought, they seemed to be whistling. Her eyes suddenly were drawn to an orange spot about 200 yards away.

"It looked like a Twinkie sticking out of the water," she said.

- - -

Alternately, Van Schooten and Spence would kick hard and surge up in the water so they could see into the distance.

It was during one surge that they saw the boat and Thomson's tiny figure. She could not see them. They could not swim fast enough to reach her.

They whistled. She didn't look. They waved an orange 4-foot diver signal tube. She didn't look. They kept waving.

Finally, she waved back.

- - -

Thomson was thrilled. She started the boat, puttered toward her friends. The men climbed aboard the boat.

"It's a feeling you can't describe," Van Schooten said.

They got back to the marina at noon and went to Jackson's Bait House to report their lost equipment.

"The girl looked kind of petrified," said Rich Johnson, who works at Jackson's. "The guy (Van Schooten) was kind of lost, like, 'Wow, what just happened.'"

He took their names and numbers and passed them on to boaters.

Mike Miller, who runs a diving charter boat from the marina, said the men are lucky to be alive.

"They won the lottery that day," Miller said.

- - -

Two anchors. A positioning buoy. More vigilance. Spence and his friends have vowed to take more precautions.

The three, who go to community college and work at a Largo paintball store, tell friends it was the luckiest day of their lives.

Later that day, Spence's tire blew out on the way to Hillsborough Community College. Then he got a parking ticket.

He also played the lottery.

And lost.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

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