The cave begins as a flooded pit, 130 feet deep. Twenty feet below the surface, a small ledge cluttered with rotting logs, concrete blocks and other debris makes a convenient decompression stop after deep dives. Once, as DeLoach sat on a log, dozing through the wait, Exley tapped him on the shoulder.
DeLoach looked up to see his partner standing at the edge, a cinderblock in his hands. Exley shook the block a couple of times. DeLoach shrugged. Exley grinned around his mouthpiece, then tossed the hunk of concrete over the cliff.
Only then did DeLoach notice that the cinderblock was tied to a coil of nylon line. Rapidly uncoiling nylon line. While he napped, Exley had tied the other end to DeLoach's manifold. Water slowed the block's fall, giving DeLoach just enough time to draw his knife and cut the line before it yanked him over the cliff. Exley blew out great bubbles of laughter.
As Eckoff tells the story, Exley turns a vivid red, grinning behind his mustache.
April 6, 1994
I stand in the hot wind, pointing a telephoto lens into Zacatón. I see Eckoff's face, and I put down the camera. The message is conveyed. The details, I know, will come later.
Bowden's rapid descent went smoothly, but his bottom mix of gases—the tank for the deepest portion of his dive—began to run out faster than he anticipated. At the 925-foot mark on his line, he began his ascent. (His two digital depth gauges later read maximum depths of 915 and 924 feet; a third gauge malfunctioned.) He didn't see Exley, but visibility was poor, and he assumed Exley had continued down to 1,000 feet. As Bowden made his first decompression stops, he realized that he was using gas faster than expected and that he might not be able to put in all the required decompression time.
Hundreds of feet above him waited support divers Karen Hohle and Ann Kristovich. (Kristovich, the team's medical officer, broke Eckoff's depth record with a 554-foot dive in Zacatón in September.) The two women saw Bowden's bubbles and knew he had begun his ascent, but there was nothing on Exley's line. Eckoff, who had just entered the sinkhole, saw worried looks on the faces of Hohle and Kristovich.
Where's Sheck? Kristovich asked on her underwater slate. Eckoff descended to 279 feet, the border of light and darkness. As she stared at Exley's vanishing line, she saw two tiny white squares drifting up toward her. Suddenly she realized they were the laminated pages of his dive profile, something he would never let go of alive. Somehow, she made it to the surface and out of the cave.
Bowden is not out of the water yet. He cut seven minutes off one decompression stop because of inadequate gas reserves; at another stop, a free-flowing regulator dumped out several minutes more. At about 250 feet, Bowden realized that he still had not seen Exley. At about 100 feet, Hohle told him in sign language what had happened. For the next few hours he would have to continue his decompression in terrible knowledge.