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2 divers die at Florida cave site

Buford Springs Cave topside view
Entrance pool to Buford Springs Cave in Florida (Hernando County Sheriff’s Office)
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Two men have died while scuba diving at western Florida cave-diving location Buford Springs Cave. 

Three teenage swimmers found 63-year-old Stephen Roderick Gambrell unresponsive at the surface of the entrance pool and raised the alarm at around 12.20pm on 20 June. 

Emergency services pronounced the diver dead at the scene as expert cave-divers launched a search for his dive-buddy, 52-year-old Todd Richard McKenna. He was later found dead at a depth of 42m, reported Hernando County Sheriff’s Office.

Set in the 81sq km Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area north of Tampa, the site is considered hazardous even for experienced divers, according to the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Buford Springs Cave, described as a maze-like network of passages, involves a 50m descent to access. Cave divers are expected to register and obtain permission from the commission before entering the system, but open-water divers were known to explore from the entry-point pool.

No bubbles

The three teenagers, a 17-year-old and two 15-year-olds, had seen the divers arrive at around 11am and had chatted to them as they kitted up. The men had carried out a short dive before resurfacing, when the young swimmers had heard them talking to each other. 

As they understood it, the pair had discussed going back down and into the cave but had also questioned whether they had enough air to complete the dive. There was also reference to a possible leakage, but they had descended again anyway.

When Gambrell was seen to resurface but remained floating face-down, the teenagers had at first assumed that he was looking down through the water in an attempt to spot McKenna. On realising that no bubbles were emerging they had swum over to check on him and, receiving no response, dragged him to a jetty but proved unable to pull him out of the water. They had then called the sheriff’s office.

Emergency services at Florida cave site
Emergency services at the scene (Hernando County Sheriff’s Office)

Two deputies arrived and pulled Gambrell out but reported that he was already dead. They then waited in vain for McKenna to surface. 

Several divers belonging to International Underwater Cave Rescue & Recovery (IUCRR) arrived to carry out a search, and found McKenna at a depth of about 42m. His body was recovered to the surface.

Neither diver showed any overt signs of trauma and their equipment appeared to be appropriate for the dive, according to the sheriff’s office, though it had yet to be established whether any of the kit was defective. Post mortems were being carried out by the local medical examiner.

Detectives identified the men, who were neighbours, from documents found in their car. They contacted their families, and are continuing an investigation into the double fatality.

“There is no immediate danger to other divers or cave divers, as this was an isolated event,” commented the IUCCR.

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