On August 20, 2010, Ben McDaniel was reported missing by employees of the Vortex Spring Dive Shop. They called the local authorities after they noticed that McDaniel’s truck had not moved in two days. With so many visitors descending on Vortex Springs during the summer, the employees did not immediately notice that Ben’s truck was still there. Two days had passed before they realized it hadn’t moved. How did the employee’s know Ben might be missing and were they were the last ones to see him alive on the night of August 18?
A Go Getter from the Start
Ben McDaniel was born in Memphis, Tennessee on April 15, 1980. He grew up, with his two younger brothers, in Collierville. He learned to play the piano, rock climb and dive, all before he was out of his teen years. He started diving at age fifteen by practicing in his family’s pool. He and his younger brother, Paul, were rock climbing buddies. He got married, started a construction business and wasn’t afraid to face a challenge. Then his world came crashing down.
When it Rains it Pours
In April of 2010, Ben moved into his parent’s beach house for a “sabbatical”. They had a house on the Emerald Coast at Santa Rosa Beach, known for its white sandy beaches and emerald green water. He had been through a divorce, his construction business failed, he owed the Internal Revenue Service and the state of Tennessee tax money, and his younger brother.
Ben found his younger brother, Paul, unconscious on the floor of the family’s home in 2008. Ben tried to revive him but was not successful. While the loss of Paul’s life was devastating for the McDaniels, they donated Paul’s organs, saving four lives and helping eighty other people. Making the best of some terrible situations, it seemed as though diving had become a way for Ben to cope with all the loss and move forward with his life. So that is what Ben did – plenty of diving.
Vortex Springs and The Gate
Vortex Spring is one of the most unique and thrilling dive locations in Florida. With clear waters and a constant temperature of 68F, it attracts divers of all levels from around the world. Divers must show proper certification and sign a release of liability to explore the springs. Vortex Springs allows open water diving, cavern diving and cave diving, all which carry a separate certification.
There are notable differences between cavern diving and cave diving. They are both extreme sports, but cave diving requires so much specialty training that only 1% of divers attain the certification. After the death of thirteen divers over a decade span at Vortex Spring, the state of Florida threatened to close the caves for good. A compromise was made to construct a gate limiting access to only those with proper certifications. A sign with a grim reaper warns of dangers.
Its important to note, only cave-certified divers are given a key to the gate, which McDaniel did not have.
When One Door Closes, Another Door Opens
Ben was constantly diving at Vortex Spring. He only had an open water certification but was working towards completing others. The employees knew him and were pretty familiar with his diving schedules. Although it is highly recommended that divers don’t venture out alone, Ben was a solo diver.
Chuck Cronon and Eduardo Taran, longtime employees of Vortex Spring, said they would often see him going on late night dives by himself. Sometimes they would watch for bubbles before leaving to make sure he was okay and resurfacing. The night of Ben’s final dive, they saw Ben go in with a helmet on.
The two went to Taran’s for coffee. Two days later they noticed Ben’s truck was still there and called the authorities. Taran passed a lie detector test, validating his story and timeline of events.
A Search that Required the Best of the Best
Once the authorities were called, the McDaniels were notified of the situation. They immediately drove down to Florida to assist in the search efforts. Cadaver dogs were brought in and alerted to a scent on the water. The search was going to have to go underwater. Two tanks that belonged to Ben were found on the outside of the cave.
Captain, Harry Hamilton, an investigator in Holmes County, realized that this specific cave diving recovery was going to require divers that possessed a skill set that very few divers had. A request went out for help. In total, 16 divers spent 36 straight days looking for Ben in the caves. One of those divers, Edd Sorenson, a veteran cave diver and recovery specialist, went further in the cave than anybody else had ever logged.
Motivated by Money
The McDaniels were so sure that their son was somewhere in the cave, that they offered a reward to anyone that was able to find his body. The reward continued to increase until its max amount of $30,000. The experienced divers that had already searched for Ben were concerned that the money would encourage divers without the proper qualifications to risk their lives. They had searched tirelessly for Ben and it seemed as though their efforts had gone unnoticed. They would not have quit searching if they had found evidence he was in there. Then in 2012, another diver died in the cave, Larry Higginbotham. No one really knows if Higginbottom was looking for Ben but the McDaniels revoked the offer, not wanting to hear of any other deaths in the cave.
Ben’s truck was there. His wallet, cash, cards, cell phone, clothes, diving log and keys, were all there. The cadaver dogs had initially picked up a scent of something on the water but what did that mean? So as grieving families often do when so many unanswered questions remain, the McDaniels hired a private investigator. Lynn-Marie Carty found that multiple people associated with Vortex Springs had criminal records. She presented new theories after working on the case.
Looking for Answers in All the Wrong Places
Nineteen months after Ben was reported missing, David Twist, the commander of HELP! Search and Rescue Dog Team, volunteered to help. He eventually searched the woods and surrounding areas working out the different theories. He didn’t find reason to believe Ben was in the cave but he did think something happened to Ben in that area. Over the next few months they conducted over thirty separate tests on the water at Vortex Spring looking for any increased signs of bacteria. That would not only indicate the probability of a decomposing body, but help them focus on a specific area. Those tests never showed anything significant.
Holding onto Hope
A Vortex Springs employee even suggested that Ben himself staged the death to create a new life somewhere else. The McDaniels have never accepted that as a possibility, pointing out the many reasons their son would not do such a thing. The biggest reason being he saw what they went through with Paul and would not intentionally put them through that again. Another being that he left the chocolate lab that he rescued, Spooner, at the beach house that day, unattended and uncared for. He loved his dog and wouldn’t just leave him to die.
He had also started a new relationship with Emily Greer. In fact, the week before his last dive, he had visited his girlfriend and his parents in Tennessee. He told them how much he had been diving and that he planned on getting a diving instructor certification. Eventually he wanted to open his own business. That passion that Ben had for life before his world turned upside down was returning. They were excited to see him looking forward to the future. Of all the theories that have been presented, Ben staging his death to start a new life, was not one they cared to entertain. But Ben’s body has to be somewhere, and someone knows where it is.
Missing Pieces to the Puzzle
Lowell Kelly, the owner of Vortex Spring at the time, acted very unusual and recounted a diver that night that he would not allow to dive. Additionally, a former employee of Vortex Spring made serious allegations against Kelly. He died the year after Ben under mysterious circumstances.
Larry Higginbotham, the diver that died in the cave in 2012, was a marine for 20 years. He had all the right certifications and got the key to the gate from the dive shop. After a designated time of not hearing from him, his girlfriend knew something was wrong and started making calls. And the two tanks they found that belonged to Ben which furthered the belief he could be in the cave, were located in an odd place. Not where a cave diver would typically leave his tanks. Even odder than that, they were not filled with the right mix, but oxygen.
By definition a vortex is a mass of swirling fluid and there are plenty of questions swirling around Ben’s disappearance. From the locked gate being open without the proper certifications, to the two days no one knew he was missing, there are too many missing pieces to this puzzle.
In 2013, the state of Florida issued his family a death certificate, after his body had still not been located. Yet, podcasts, documentaries and chat forums, continue to explore the possible narratives and search for answers. The McDaniel family deserves to know what happened to Ben, and they still have support in that search.