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Smoking killes

Famous last words?

You never know when the last thing you say will end up being the last thing you said. An incident which took place 20 years ago illustrates this perfectly.

Take a walk in the woods

The next time you visit Madison Blue Spring near the Florida-Georgia border, take some time to go for a stroll through the adjacent woods. Everywhere you look, you’ll see deep depressions in the forest floor. These are sinkholes in the making.

Several of these depressions align with the cave itself. They correspond to large breakdown piles on the floor of the cave. This accounts for the roller coaster ride you experience when you first enter the system.

Some of these breakdown piles are no longer active. Some are. Among the most active is the point in the cave we call the Half Hitch. It plays an important role in our story.

A deceptive dogleg

The Half Hitch is a mixture of rocks and mud, including several large boulders. To get through the Half Hitch, you must pass through openings between these boulders. There are two of these.

  • The most obvious one makes it appear as though you can pass through the Half Hitch in a straight line. As you approach it, though, you discover it is too small to pass through while wearing backmounted doubles or CCRs.
  • The better way, and the one through which the guideline normally passes, involves making a dogleg. The middle section of the dogleg goes up at a sharp angle. Although big enough for backmount, it’s still a restriction, requiring divers to pass through single file.

Were it not for the guideline, it might not be obvious the dogleg provides the best means to traverse the Half Hitch. This is especially true if heading downstream toward the exit, or in poor visibility. These were contributing factors in the incident.

Nothing last forever…especially guideline

Permanent guidelines are something too many cave divers take for granted. They do wear out over time and can break without warning. That was a contributing factor in this story.

The unstable rock which created the Half Hitch is still part of an actively forming sinkhole. Periodically, it will open up and deposit a fresh load of rocks and mud in the cave passageway. When this happened 20 years ago, one of the rocks severed the gold line.

At that time, Madison Blue was privately owned. The owner’s son made a temporary repair to the guideline using #24 line from a safety reel. Unfortunately, this lightweight line breaks much more easily than normal gold line.

So what happened?

The incident in question involved two divers. From what we know, neither may have had a lot of cave diving experience.

Cave diving accidents often raise more questions than answers. The problem is the fact the person or persons best able to provide those answers can no longer do so.

This leads to speculation and assumption, which is often wrong. We’ll limit what we tell you here to what we know with certainty or can reasonably assume from available facts.

  • A data dump from one diver’s computer allowed us to establish how far the divers made it into the system before calling the dive. It was a long way. There is a high probability the divers violated Thirds…and knew it.
  • As the divers passed through the Half Hitch on their way in, it appears they may have unknowingly broken the #24 line used to make the temporary repair to the gold line. In any event, the divers returned to the Half Hitch to find the line broken and no longer passing through the dogleg.
  • Due to the recent breakdown, there was abundant silt near the Half Hitch. Repeated attempts by the divers to find their way through the restriction may have made it harder for the divers to see what is readily apparent in good visibility.

Again, we have no way of knowing precisely what happened. We do know one diver eventually found his way through the dogleg using his safety reel. The other diver pushed through the smaller of the two openings by removing his tanks.

The two divers joined up after making it through the Half Hitch. Unfortunately, it was too late. We found them holding on to one another, thoroughly entangled in guideline, attempting to share the last remaining air.

“And the most bizarre part of this story is…”

Shortly after this incident, I was in waist-deep water at the bottom of the stairs at Madison, gearing up to enter the cave. A man appeared at the top of the stairs and asked whether I was familiar with the incident. I said I was.

“I was the last person to see those two alive,” he told me. “One was already just below the surface, checking his gear. The other was suited up and sitting on the bottom step.”

And what was the victim doing while sitting on the bottom step? According to the guy I talked to, he was smoking a cigarette.

According to the witness, at this point the victim tossed his cigarette butt in the water, looked up at the witness and said, “You know what they say? Gotta have just one last cigarette.” He then put his mask and reg in place and swam off to join his buddy.

If true, “Gotta have just one last cigarette” were his last words.

Believe it…or not?

If there is one thing social media teaches us, it’s the fact people have no difficulty making shit up if they think they can get away with it. So was the supposed witness to the incident telling the truth?

  • The first question you must ask is Where did the victim get his final cigarette? Did he carry a pack of smokes and a lighter to the water with him? This, more than anything else, strains the credibility of the story.
  • On the other hand, we once had a cave instructor who carried cigarettes and a lighter with him in his battery canister. (Those things used to be huge.) He would surface at Olsen mid-way through his dive, open the canister and take a nicotine break. This got around, so it’s possible other divers did this as well.

In listening to the supposed witness, I got a very strong sense he was telling the truth, as bizarre as it was. It he was lying, he at least deserves an academy award for delivery.

And, if he was telling the truth, this has to be the ultimate in “famous last words.”

Unanswered questions

As mentioned earlier, incidents such as this often raise more questions than answers. For example:

  • There is ample evidence the victims violated Thirds.
  • When the victims discovered they had to deal with a broken guideline in poor visibility, they may have had to deal with the additional stress of knowing they had little air and little time with which to find the way out.
  • There is speculation the victims may have made repeated attempts to find their way out using a safety reel. This is instead of simply waiting for the current to carry the silt away. With each attempt, they would have only made visibility worse.
  • Had the victims known, with certainty, they had time to wait for the visibility to improve, the exit through the dogleg may have become more apparent.

Unfortunately, we will never know.

One final questions

It’s widely held that smoking increases gas consumption. I’ve often wondered, had the one victim not been a smoker, would his improved gas consumption been enough to make a difference?

Perhaps this is an example of yet another way smoking kills.

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