Four days after a Florida cave diving pioneer didn’t surface from the depths of an underwater Texas cave, Brett Hemphill’s dive team recovered his body late Sunday night, according to sheriff’s officials.
Only the highly trained cave divers in Hemphill’s inner circle could carry out the daring recovery mission in Phantom Springs Cave, one of the deepest sprawling underwater cave systems in the nation, according to Jerry Walker, the chief deputy at the Jeff Davis County Sheriff’s Office in Texas.
Several expert divers traveled thousands of miles to Phantom Springs Cave to retrieve Hemphill’s body from more than 450 feet deep, according to an online statement from Karst Underwater Research, the Dade City nonprofit that was led by Hemphill.
Hemphill began his fateful dive just before 11 a.m. Wednesday with one of Karst’s directors, Andrew Pitkin, according to the nonprofit. Hemphill was seen on video tying a guide rope to a rock at 570 feet deep before the team became separated.
“We finished recovering Brett from the cave this evening,” Pitkin wrote in a social media post late Sunday night. “Thank you to everyone who has contributed in any way. Please allow us some time to come to terms with his loss, as up until now we have been focused on the recovery.”
Fire officials from the Jeff Davis County area assisted in recovering Hemphill’s body once his dive team brought him to the surface, Walker said. An autopsy will happen in the coming days at the medical examiner’s office in Lubbock, Texas.
Hemphill was renowned worldwide in the diving community for his daring adventurism, his kindness and helping to shrink the gap between scientists and adventurers. News of his death has rattled the tight-knit cave diving world, who hailed Hemphill as an attentive diver who always prioritized safety.
As the president of Karst Underwater Research in Dade City, Hemphill explored, mapped and documented an environment rarely encountered by people. His adventurous feats regularly spurred calls for protecting and preserving the unique underwater cave systems he surveyed.
“He was a true explorer and pioneer. The dive community has lost a great individual today,” said Becky Kagan Schott, an Emmy-winning underwater filmmaker who knew Hemphill for more than two decades and made several documentaries with him in Florida, the Bahamas, the Yucatan and the Texas cave where he died.
“Not only for his exploration and education efforts,” Schott told the Tampa Bay Times. “He was a genuine human with a lot of compassion.”
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Times staff writer Jack Prator contributed to this report.