Tragic Incident at Diepolder 3 Cave: Loss of Diver Keith Hendricks

Tragic Incident at Diepolder 3 Cave: Loss of Diver Keith Hendricks
Incident LocationDiver Full Name
Sandhill Scout Reservation, Hernando County, Florida, USAKeith Hendricks

While diving again after a six-year break, a 51-year-old experienced diver realized that his dry suit was faulty at depth. His hope of survival relied on how fast his buddy could get him to the surface. Would he make it in time?

Cave Location: Diepolder II and Diepolder III

The Diepolder sinks can be found on the Sandhill Scout Reservation, a place located off Highway 50 just east of Weeki Wachee in Hernando County, Florida. These sinks, known as Diepolder II and Diepolder III, are intriguing submerged caves that offer a fascinating adventure for those who dare to explore them. These caves do not have just regular-sized chambers, but rather enormous rooms. Diepolder II reaches 360 feet, while Diepolder III takes you down to 300 feet.

Preservation and Safety

The Diepolder family, who own the land where the caves are located, passed away in the mid to late ’70s. In their passing, they chose to leave a lasting legacy by donating the property to the Boy Scouts. Following the acquisition of the property by the Boy Scouts, they took on the responsibility of managing and preserving these remarkable caves to ensure the safety of all who venture into the depths. The Florida Speleological Researchers Program (FSR) was established, which is the oldest guide program to exist today. The FSR program is not just about providing guidance; it also upholds certain principles and guidelines to guarantee the safety of all diving operations conducted within the caves.

The Experienced Diver: Keith Hendricks

A 51-year-old diver named Keith Hendricks was an experienced cave diver who had over 18 years of diving experience. However, he had to undergo surgery at some point in his life, and this left him bedridden for close to a year before he miraculously regained his health. For six years, Keith did not dive. However, along the way, Keith met a new neighbor who was also a diver, Mike Williams.

A New Dive Plan

After several discussions about cave diving, Keith realized that he had missed diving underwater and suggested to Mike that they go on a dive once more at Diepolder III cave. Keith and Mike were getting ready for their dive, planning to dive 147 feet. Mike thought it would be a good idea for Keith to go on a refresher dive since it had been a long time since he last went diving, wanting to make sure Keith was comfortable and remembered all the necessary skills. However, Keith refused Mike’s suggestion, believing that his experience as a diver surpassed that of most diving instructors.

The Faulty Dry Suit

Before heading into the water, Keith carefully examined all his diving equipment, including his dry suit. He noticed that his dry suit, which he used to keep himself dry and warm underwater, was no longer a perfect fit. It had become a bit tight in certain areas. Keith realized that he couldn’t afford to buy a new one at the moment, so he had no choice but to make do with the suit he already had.

The Dive and the Incident

On the designated day, they prepared themselves and started their dive. Everything was going smoothly until Mike noticed that Keith seemed to be struggling with controlling his dry suit. Mike signaled to Keith, asking if he needed assistance, but Keith responded with an okay signal. However, as they descended to their agreed-upon depth, Mike checked his remaining air and realized he needed to begin ascending. He signaled to Keith, who acknowledged the signal. Unfortunately, as they made their way up, Keith realized that he had accidentally overinflated his dry suit, and his inflation bottle became trapped in a wedge.

However, as Mike ascended, he never looked back, assuming that Keith was right behind him. Upon reaching the surface, Mike realized that his buddy was nowhere to be seen. Concerned, he felt the need to descend again to investigate what had gone wrong. Re-entering the water, he discovered that Keith was trapped in the guidelines and signaling for help. Mike managed to free him, but in the process, he depleted his air supply. Now relying on his pony bottle, a small emergency air source, Mike urgently signaled to Keith that he needed air to ascend safely. Keith, disoriented from being trapped initially, failed to recognize the severity of the situation or offer any assistance. Finally, after regaining his composure, Keith recognized Mike’s desperate need for air and assisted him in reaching the surface by sharing his reserve with him. Luckily, they made it out in time, safely.

A Second Incident

A week after the previous incident, Mike and Keith planned their next dive and decided to incorporate the additional task of underwater photography into their expedition. After reaching the bottom of their dive site, they went in opposite directions to take some pictures. When Mike returned, he encountered a distressing situation. Keith was found inverted, with his dry suit legs overinflated, causing him to remain at depth due to excess weight.

Mike quickly checked on Keith but was met with no response. Keith appeared to be unresponsive and had irregular breaths. Recognizing the severity of the situation, Mike swiftly took action. He inflated his buoyancy compensator to help bring Keith to the surface more rapidly. To reduce Keith’s weight, Mike dropped his weight to approximately 17 pounds, ensuring that they could ascend safely. Throughout the ascent, Mike maintained his regulator in his mouth, allowing him to breathe underwater and provide a continuous air supply.

Upon reaching the surface, it became evident that Keith had shallow breaths, and it was hard to detect his pulse. The presence of blood-tinged sputum, a mixture of saliva and blood, was observed coming from Keith’s mouth, adding to the alarming circumstances. Three other divers who had already emerged from the water noticed their distress and hurried to their aid. Recognizing the seriousness of the situation, one of the divers immediately swam ahead to inform the authorities about the emergency unfolding in the water. Meanwhile, the other two divers began administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to Keith, striving to revive him. This continued for up to 20 minutes, but regrettably, despite their determined endeavors, Keith was still unconscious.

Medical Response and Autopsy

In response to the distress call, an ambulance promptly arrived at the scene. Keith was quickly transported to a nearby hospital, where the medical team swiftly assessed his condition. Recognizing the potential complications related to diving emergencies, since they dived up to 147 feet, they decided to transfer Keith to a decompression chamber. The intention behind this treatment was to alleviate the effects of decompression sickness and potentially restore his condition. However, despite these efforts, the decompression did not yield any significant changes in Keith’s condition. Tragically, Keith was eventually declared deceased.

To gain further insights into the cause of his untimely passing, an autopsy was conducted. The autopsy revealed extensive lung barotrauma, indicating significant damage to the lungs caused by pressure changes during the dive. Additionally, bleeding was observed in the petrous bones of the ears, suggesting the presence of injuries resulting from the pressure changes. It’s worth noting that there was minimal evidence of coronary artery disease, indicating that heart-related issues were not the primary cause of Keith’s unfortunate demise.

Lessons Learned

This incident serves as an important reminder that no matter how experienced the diver may be, it is crucial to approach diving with the utmost caution and respect for the possible dangers and unpredictability of the underwater world. Experience alone could not guarantee safety, as numerous factors at play can pose risks and challenges.

It’s vital to acknowledge any deficiencies in training, physical fitness, and equipment. Even seasoned divers can benefit from refresher dives after a prolonged period away from the activity. Regular practice and staying up to date with skills and knowledge are paramount to ensuring one’s readiness for any unforeseen circumstances.

Additionally, it is essential to assess the condition of diving equipment. Even if the gear appears to be in good working order, it is crucial to consider its suitability and effectiveness for individual needs. If the equipment no longer fits properly or fails to function optimally, it is prudent to consider replacing it to maintain a high level of safety.

Moreover, it’s crucial to make informed decisions about diving, considering various factors such as personal health, equipment reliability, environmental conditions, and other potential concerns. Opting out of a dive when any one of these factors is a cause for concern is a responsible and wise decision to prioritize personal safety.

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Where did the incident occur?

The incident occurred at Sandhill Scout Reservation, Hernando County, Florida, USA.

What were the depths of Diepolder II and Diepolder III caves?

Diepolder II reaches a depth of 360 feet, while Diepolder III goes down to 300 feet.

What were the main factors contributing to the incident?

The incident was mainly caused by Keith’s faulty dry suit and his failure to recognize the severity of the situation during the dive.

Patrick Broin
Patrik, a seasoned cave diver, shares his first-hand experiences and expert insights on the treacherous world of cave diving accidents.
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