Hahn memorial, diver recognition on Oct. 14

Autumn is making its presence felt in Roaring River State Park.

Leaves once a vibrant green are slipping into shades of yellow and brown, releasing their holds on trees and casting their fates upon the whimsy of winds hinting of cooler temperatures to come.

The change in season brings with it memories of the clear, crisp, otherwise-perfect fall day almost a year ago, when 27-year-old KISS (Keep It Super Simple) Rebreathers diver Eric Lee Hahn lost his life in Roaring River Spring.

Hahn’s parents, Linda and Gordon Hahn, of Charlottesville, Va., will be in Roaring River State Park on the anniversary of their son’s death. They cordially invite members of the public to attend an event they are planning in honor of Eric’s memory.

The Eric Lee Hahn Memorial and KISS Rebreathers Dive Team Recognition Event will be held on Oct. 14 at 5 p.m., at the Emory Melton Inn and Conference Center in Roaring River State Park.

The Hahns will share stories of their son for the benefit of the Roaring River community, as Eric Lee Hahn’s name will now forever be connected with the park’s history. Their purpose for hosting the memorial event, however, is two-fold.

“We loved our son,” Linda Hahn said. “And, we’ll always miss him. However, we believe, as part of the KISS Rebreathers dive team exploring Roaring River Spring Cave, Eric died for a purpose. With this memorial event, we want to give credence to that purpose and share the value of the dive team’s work in Roaring River Spring Cave.”

As part of the memorial and recognition event, a representative of the Ozarks Region of Missouri State Parks will present and dedicate the new map created through the efforts of the KISS Rebreathers team. The artistic rendering of the map, produced by Curt Bowen, of Advanced Diver Magazine, will be placed at the mouth of the spring to replace an older map created in 1979.

Plans are also in place for the showing of a documentary created by Tim Bass of, TL Bass Productions, for the Ozark Chinquapin Nature Center. The documentary features interviews with the divers and underwater footage of the KISS team’s explorations in Roaring River Cave.

The KISS team’s monthly explorations of the spring cave began in May 2021 and continued for 15 months, with a two-month break over the winter.

Young says his dive team consisted of friends, all of whom are experienced world-class divers, who dive with rebreathers manufactured by his company near Fort Smith, Ark.

Rebreathers, known as “closed-circuit” breathing equipment, reuse the oxygen in a diver’s exhalations, making them far lighter and more compact than conventional open-circuit SCUBA equipment. The rebreathers – many with side-mounted air tanks – make it possible for divers to navigate through narrow passageways and restrictions which would be impossible with bulkier equipment.

Such proved to be the case in Roaring River Cave.

In July 2021, the KISS divers were able to penetrate a restriction in the cave that exists at a depth of 225 feet subsurface, a restriction which brought previous divers to a halt. Beyond that restriction, they found a room that Young, at the time, called “scary big,” in which the floors, walls and ceiling gave way to nothingness.

During subsequent visits, mapping of the newly discovered area of the cave began, using manual measurements and satellite-supplied coordinates collected by team cartographer Jon Lillestolen, who later transcribed the numbers to a computer.

On Nov. 12, 2021, Young and underwater photographer and videographer Randall Purdy descended to a depth of 472 feet below the water’s surface. No floor of the cave was yet in sight. Even without continued explorations, that depth established Roaring River Cave as the deepest known explored spring cave in the nation.

Due to decompression requirements, the divers returned to the surface that day and put their explorations on hiatus until the following year.

In 2022, marine biologist Fernando Calderon Gutierrez, who has a doctorate and is with Texas A&M University, joined the KISS team to begin assessing climate conditions in the cave and the types of creatures that inhabited it.

The team’s work progressed month-by-month, with anticipation mounting for favorable water conditions later in 2022, which would allow for greater depth exploration. September appeared to be that month, but the water at depth proved too murky for visibility. Perhaps the result of a recent earthquake in north central Arkansas, Young surmised.

Conditions appeared to be more favorable when the team’s scheduled October visit rolled around. Mist clung to the spring lake and the temperature was a crisp 37 degrees on the morning of Friday, Oct. 14, 2022, when the KISS team gathered at the spring to discuss their dive plans for that day and the one to follow.

Hearts were light and laughter filled the air in anticipation of a weekend which they knew could deliver yet one more milestone in the team’s ongoing exploration of Roaring River Cave.

Anticipation turned to shock a mere three hours later, however, when Hahn, the youngest member of the dive team, began experiencing seizures at a depth of approximately 190 feet below the surface of the water. His teammates made exhaustive efforts attempting to save him, with no success. Hahn succumbed within minutes to what an investigation determined to be seizures related to oxygen toxicity from an inappropriate mix of gases in his personal air tanks.

The tragedy marked the abrupt termination of the KISS team’s exploration of Roaring River Cave.

Young’s permit for the 2023 season was not renewed by the Department of Natural Resources, a disappointment to Linda Hahn, who would like to see the KISS team’s exploration continue.

“Eric died doing what he loved,” she said. “And, for Gordon and me, the idea of seeing the work that he loved continue is a way of keeping his memory alive.”

The Hahns and their extended family members hope to learn more about what the KISS team’s work entailed during the Oct. 14 memorial.

The core team of divers, plus Gutierrez and multiple support divers, will be present at the event to share memories of Eric and explain their roles as part of the KISS exploratory team.

Young’s wife, Sheri Young, is glad the Hahns are hosting the memorial and recognition event.

“This will bring closure to all of the people who were following the progress of the divers for the past two years,” she said. “A death is so tragic, but with no further news or acknowledgement of the results of the team’s work, the tragedy is compounded.”

Roaring River achieved the status of “Most Visited State Park” in Missouri for 2020-2022. The park logged almost 2 million visitors in 2021, a number which represents a 30 percent increase in visitors over the year before. The leap in attendance suggests that the explorations of the KISS team were generating considerable interest from not only the local community, but from a broader area as well. That community, Sheri Young said, deserves to know the outcome of the Roaring River Cave explorations and to know that the team’s work was not in vain.

Linda Hahn agrees. Hahn extends her gratitude to the DNR and Missouri State Parks System for their commitment to present and dedicate the new map and show the documentary during the memorial event.

The park service, Hahn said, is also making plans to install a memorial bench in Eric Hahn’s honor at the head of the walkway leading to the spring.

The Cassville Democrat is working with Linda Hahn to coordinate the event, and plans to livestream the memorial on its Facebook page for those who are unable to attend.

One comment

  1. Such a sad waste of life. What was once a promising future is now a cautionary tale. We will miss him. I hope it leads to better communication and interaction between dive team members. Perhaps if they conferred rather than each being responsible for their own gear and air mixture, someone might have advised him otherwise, or at least made him think twice. He was far too new at it to be left unchecked. Nobody likes to talk about that.

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