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The Miracle in Merritt’s Pond

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David-Sutta-600x450 David Sutta
David Sutta joined the CBS4 news team in April of 2007. As S...
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MIAMI (CBSMiami) — While working on our series we learned in cave diving there is really no such thing as a rescue.  If something goes wrong, it’s up to you to fix it.  If you can’t fix it, a cave diver will eventually recover your body.  We heard over and over again there are no rescues.  Except for that one guy, in that one place, who pulls off the miracles in Merritt’s Pond.

It’s a beautiful day in the small town of Marianna, Florida.  The birds are basking in the sun. The water in Merritt’s Mill Pond is crystal clear. A father and his teenage children are about to dive into a cave they had heard about on vacation. As they strap on their gear another group of divers are headed out of the caves.

Twin Caves, a relatively shallow adventure appears innocent.  Seventeen year old Alexandra Clark enters the opening about 20 feet deep.  Her father, an experienced open water diving instructor, had been on a number of dives with his kids over the years.  They had been in some novice caves.  They had all acted responsibly and never had any issues.  This cave was different though and Raymond Clark knew it the moment he followed his daughter inside.

As she swam into the cave her fins kicked up a thick layer of silt.  The divers who were coming out of the cave quickly realized what was about to happen and swam for the exit.  As the silt filled up the cave Raymond pushed inside, racing for his daughter.  By the time he gets to her an unforgiving cloud blinds them both.  Which way is out?

They move together along the wall, feeling their way.  For a brief second Raymond lets go of his daughter.  When he reaches back for her, she’s gone.  Thinking she made it out, he eventually feels his way out.  When he surfaces he realizes his daughter is nowhere to be found.  He finds the group of divers who had just exited the cave. He pleads with them to rescue her.  The divers respond ,”oh no.We’re not trained for this.”

THE RESCUER

Cave diving instructor Edd Sorenson was teaching a class nearby when he got the call.  The clock is ticking.  Once she’s out of air she’s dead.

“If they’re not already dead they are going to be really soon. So I need to get there really quickly,” Sorenson told CBS4’s David Sutta.

Sorenson is downstream teaching a class at Jackson Blue.  He ditches his class, jumps in his truck, and races toward his house, where he runs his small dive shop operation.  Out back his crew is throwing gear into a boat.  Sorenson says he never saw his staff move that fast.

As they pulled away from the dock and steer toward Twin Caves, Edd suited up.

Sorenson ponders,”There is 25,000 feet of passage in there. Where do you start?”  Even if he gets there in time the odds are against him.  “It’s one of those things that’s a virtual impossibility,”  Sorenson says.

When they pull up to Twin Caves, a huge mud cloud covers the pond.  The boat driver can’t even find the cave entrance.  Sorenson yells to just get him close.

He recalls,”I jumped in the water and couldn’t find the hole.  I thought this is really embarrassing if I can’t even find the hole in the ground.”  Fighting sea grass with a face full of mud he reached around the bottom of the pond.  “I felt around until I found the ledge.  Felt the opening.  Tied on a primary reel and started doing a search pattern.” As he swept his arms around the cave he felt nothing.  Seconds feel like hours.  The clock is ticking.  And then his arm hits something.  He swims towards it for a closer look.  It’s a set of legs.  Alexandra Clark.  Alive.

“She had found an air pocket in the ceiling and she had gotten up into the air pocket.”  Sorenson said.  Twin Caves had a number of pockets.  The mix of air in them gives a diver an unclear amount of “extra” air.  Now that Sorenson has found her he has to now look out for himself.  “If panic has set in, they can take you out very quick and that’s part of the reason why a lot of people don’t want to do this kind of thing. Getting a dead body is one thing.  Getting a live body that could take you out is another thing.” Sorenson explained.  A desperate diver will stop at nothing for air… even if it means taking your life.  Sorenson came up into the air pocket and was surprised.  “She was remarkably calm.  She was crying.  She was ‘thank you. Thank you.  Thank you.” he recalls.  Her calmness meant she used less air.  Her calmness gave Edd a fighting chance to save her.

The journey out would not be easy.  “I told her it’s really bad.  I’m going to put you on my arm. I’m not going to let go of you.  I am going to get you out of here.” Sorenson said.  He didn’t have all that far to travel out.  But unable to see it still would be challenging.  He reaches the emergency line he tied up outside the cave.  All he has to do is follow it out and they’ll live.  They start moving down the line when things became even more complicated.  “We were quite a ways from the exit and the reel is going to start to tangle her up.  At this point I thought there is no way I am going to be able to grab this girl, that I told I wasn’t going to leave here, and move her away.”  Edd makes a difficult decision to drop his reel.  He let’s go of his line to the exit, his lifeline, to untangle Alexandra.  They both are now swimming blind.  The one thing Sorenson has working for him… the countless dives he’s made inside Twin Caves.  He manages to find his way out, by feeling alone.  “I put a lot of bodies in bags and it’s really nice to send one home, happy and thankful.  Very rewarding.” Sorenson said.

 

STUMBLING UPON FOUR MIRACLES

You could call it luck she lives.   But many say it’s something else.  Something magical happened in 2012.  Edd Sorenson didn’t just rescue Alexandra Clark.  He rescued three other divers trapped in caves.  Four people living today because of him.  “Maybe it was just a miracle.  Maybe it was four miracles stacked on top of each other.  I don’t know.  I’m just glad they got to go home.” he says humbly.  For one person to do four rescues in a lifetime, let alone a year, is like winning the lottery.   And Sorenson knows it.  “It’s called the rescue and recovery team but there are no rescues.  In cave diving they are all fatalities.  By the time we get called, by the time they come up overdue.” Sorenson recalls.

In a previous life Sorenson was in construction in the Northwest.  He discovered a passion for cave diving on a vacation in Florida.  He sold his successful business, moved to the Panhandle, and started a new life.  With the nearest dive shop a good distance away he bought a commercial grade compressor to fill his own tanks.  As time wore one cave divers would stop by his house for air fills.  They would ask for advice and insight.    Eventually he just happened into another business.  A dive shop.  The local businesses and politicians began to pay attention.  The sleepy town of Marianna suddenly had a cave diving tourism boom.  The hotel rooms and restaurants typically filled by visitors to the local prison were now stopping in to learn and dive with Edd and his staff.  Sorenson enjoyed having all the visitors.  He thought if he could educate a few divers in the process why not.

We saw firsthand as an instructor he’s tough as nails.  When asked about why Sorenson smiles and answers “I’m hard on everybody because I want them to realize that with me instead of these guys that I put in bags realized it.”  Underwater he turns on a dime, tasks are done with surgical precision, he’s like a rock no matter what the situation.  He seems supernatural.  During our shoot on the coldest days of winter I’m wearing four layers and hat in freezing weather.  Sorenson walks around in a t-shirt.

I questioned why anyone should cave dive.  I ponder what is it in these caves Sorenson wanted me to see.  He looks down for a second and then back at me.  “I think everyone should see this.” he says.   Over three days he gave us an eyeful.  He took us inside the very cave he pulled Alexandra out of.  As our production crew, his staff, and a few volunteers simulated a reenactment the rescue of Alexandra Clark we saw what he has endured, what she has survived.  The silt out seemed impossible to navigate, impossible to find someone.  He shrugs it off saying the silt out that day was far worse.  Underwater I ask “How do you equate this for someone who doesn’t dive?”  He responds “It would be like going into a giant department store and feeling around, looking for a body.”  Sadly he’s found more bodies than he has divers alive.  Adults. Children.  He says he doesn’t dwell on it.  I press him “How can you say you don’t think about it?  You have to think about it?” “Somebody has to go in there and get them.  That family needs closure.  So if it’s a job I can do, I get it done.” Sorenson says.

There is no pay, no awards, and no guarantees he’ll even survive.  Yet Sorenson continues to go in, hoping he’ll pull off another miracle in Merritt’s Mill Pond.  He shrugs his shoulders.  “I can’t explain it all.  There was a million things that had to go right.  And only one thing to go wrong and there would have been four more fatalities that year.”

NEVER DIVING AGAIN

Raymond and Alexandra Clark haven’t jumped in the water since that day.  They told us they are still healing and have difficulty talking about it.  They declined to be interviewed online but did want to make one point to you: if you’re not trained to dive a cave don’t go.  Raymond, a certified open water instructor found his own training failed him that day.  He wrote us the following letter he wanted us to share with you.

“Open water scuba diving, by its very nature, involves certain known and unknown risks to its participants. Proper training, equipment, and experience manage and lessen the risks of each dive to a large extent.  By contrast, diving in an overhead environment such as in cave diving increases those risks almost exponentially, where many years of open water diving experience alone do not offset those risks.

Although we followed my certification agency’s rules regarding overhead diving (i.e. do not dive past natural daylight, and never pass the posted warning sign), on that near tragic day in August of 2012 conditions existed where those agency rules became fallible. In short, we were neither properly trained nor properly equipped for the hazards associated with an unfamiliar overhead environment.

Anyone contemplating entry into an overhead environment without proper training and equipment should ask himself or herself whether it is worth the price of death. Having nearly lost my daughter in a Florida underwater cave, I cannot emphasize enough that there is no dive site so irresistible that is worth more than life itself.” – Raymond Clark

Did you miss our first segment on Cave Diving: Beyond the Limit?  Watch it now as we explore one of the most dangerous caves in all of Florida.

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