Two Men Die While Cave Diving at Florida’s Chasshowitzka Wildlife Park

by TK Sanders

Two men died while cave diving this week in a Florida lake known for its dangerous and hazardous conditions according to police. A group of teens initially called 911 after seeing bodies floating around Buford Springs Cave in the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Park, about 60 miles from Tampa.

At first, the teens thought the diver on the surface was simply looking down into the water, perhaps for his dive partner. The Hernando County Sheriff’s Office said that the man was actually dead, as well.

When deputies lifted the diver out of the water onto the dock, he was “obviously deceased” and beyond resuscitation. Expert cave rescue teams eventually located the second body, which was over 130 feet below surface in the cave system.

Police identified the victims as Todd Richard McKenna, 52, and Stephen Roderick Gambrell, 63. The teens which called police said they spoke with the men prior to their dives. Today reports that “after the men resurfaced, the teens said they heard them talking about going back down. And also discussing whether they had enough air in their tanks.”

The teens — two 15-year-olds and one 17-year-old — said that one man admitted he had a leak in his tank but decided to dive anyways. The divers’ deaths occurred during their second dive attempt.

Only a handful of people worldwide are cave certified for diving

The teens said they saw the one dead diver floating on the water’s surface, but didn’t know he was dead until swimming out to check on him. Once they knew his condition, they paddled him to the dock, but couldn’t hoist him out of the water without assistance from the deputies.

The cause of death is still uncertain. Police said there were no signs of trauma, and that the divers were experienced and had the proper equipment. A local medical examiner will perform an autopsy on each body.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission calls cave diving one of the world’s “most deadly” sports; and Buford Spring is one of the toughest dives around. The 167-foot descent has claimed multiple lives due to hazardous conditions. Those conditions include darkness, depth, and the need for very specialized equipment.

“Even experienced cave divers have perished here,” according to an official guide of the area.

The National Speleological Society’s Cave Diving Section (NSS-CDS) defines cavern diving as diving in an open area that receives direct sunlight. The area is no deeper than 70 feet, and is within 130 linear feet of the cave entrance.

Cave divers, on the other hand, can dive miles underwater, and go into areas without natural light, as well as limited water visibility. To cave dive, scuba-certified divers need to complete rigorous and specialty certifications.