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Memorial proposed at Eagle's Nest

Published:   |   Updated: December 27, 2013 at 11:26 AM

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Paul Heinerth believes there should be some type of memorial erected at the entrance to Eagle's Nest to commemorate the two divers who died there while trying to plumb the depths of the underground cave system.

A small cross or plaque would also serve as a sober reminder, he said, that cave diving can be both infectious and dangerous at the same time.

"We're humans and we're visiting an environment full of water (so) you just have to be extra careful," said Heinerth, owner of Hudson's Scuba West.

"Maybe a memorial in the parking lot would give divers about to go in the water a reason to pause and think about what they're going to do."

Heinerth assisted in the underwater search for Craig Simon of Spring Hill, who, along with John H. Robinson of St. Petersburg, became lost in the tangled network of caves under Eagle's Nest that claimed their lives.

Despite the tragedy, Heinerth believes the state should keep Eagle's Nest - a natural pond located north of State Road 550 near Weeki Wachee - open to experienced cave divers. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission is considering closing the site.

"That would make as much sense as banning driving because people have car accidents," said Heinerth, who figures he's made about 100 dives at that world-renowned cave exploration site. "It's human nature to go explore. To curtail the activity because they don't understand it or agree with it is not the answer. The answer is to make people more aware of the danger.

"Those of us who have the training and the right gear and the desire to go there should have the opportunity to do so.

Learning the ropes

Heinerth, who teaches cave diving and stocks the necessary equipment for enthusiasts in Pasco, Hernando and surrounding areas, said there are several stages divers must go through to become certified.

The first stage, called cavern diving, generally sifts out those who are not cut out for the activity. An instructor takes the new recruits underwater but always with the comforting sight of daylight above.

Heinerth estimates about 10 percent of first-timers bow out after the first stage. The rest move on to the next level, "Introduction to Caves," and go deeper into the depths.

There are several levels after that until a person is ready to tackle Eagle's Nest, one of the most daunting dives because of the complex underwater maze.

The water there is clear and tunnels are as big as subway terminals, Heinerth said.
Cave diving, he said, gets in the blood.

"It's a real tough thing to describe to people," Heinerth said. "People ask me why, after 33 years of diving, I go down there. It's a combination of things. (One reason) is awe."

'It's too dangerous'

Sheryl Pfeiffer wouldn't know about that. She's never cave-dived or had the desire for it. But she is adamant on one thing: the state should close Eagle's Nest before someone else dies.

"It's too dangerous," said Pfeiffer, a close friend of the Simon family and co-worker of the late diver's wife, Beth. "I'm not a diver, so I don't know. But as a mother, I would not want to have to tell my children your daddy's not coming home."

Pfeiffer likes the idea of a memorial at the site.

"I think Craig would have wanted that," she said.

Pfeiffer helped watch the Simon's four children the first day of the search. The family was loving and giving and made people feel at home, she said.

She described Simon as a "wonderful family man."

Safer than walking across the road

Although he sells cave diving equipment, Robert Minoletti, general manager of Adventure Dive Center in Hernando Beach, caters more to recreational scuba divers.

But the diving rules, he said, are the same: Adhere to the strict guidelines to avoid trouble.
"I think if you follow rules, these things don't happen," Minoletti said. "(Simon or Robinson) made a mistake and I don't think you'll find out what the mistake was. It's real sad.

"We're more into the fun part of diving. A guy that goes into a cave has to be very knowledgeable and gone through many hours of classes. We teach people to have fun, not to take chances. Diving is more safe than walking across the street if you follow the rules."

Various fundraisers have been arranged to help defray funeral costs and other expenses for the family of Craig Simon, the Spring Hill cave diver who died this past weekend when he failed to resurface from Eagle's Nest.

- Compass Bank has opened an account in the Simon family's name. People can drop off donations at both branches: 8550 Forest Oaks Blvd. or 401 Mariner Blvd.
- Kash n' Karry - where Simon's widow works - is accepting monetary donations at all locations.
- A hot dog and hamburger stand will be set up outside the Kash n' Karry Saturday and Sunday at Mariner and Northcliffe Boulevard, with proceeds going to the Simon family.
- Friends are arranging to have jugs placed at local dive shops so people can drop off their donations.

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