DIVING T0 18 GRAND
Many times I go down to Ft Lauderdale beach intending to swim 10,000
meters - the length of the beach and back. I have only made it twice.
5,000 is my normal workout, and I have done plenty of 6, 7, 8, and 9,000
meter swims, but 10 just does not come off so easily.
There are problems. The Man 'O War's, box jellies, and other
stingers, the weather, the current, the fear of the tigers, the
spookyness of being alone, the dehydration, the depletion of potassium
and glycogen, and the humiliation of trying to swim with Russians and
kids who feel no pain, have no fear, and keep the hammer down.
It is the same in cave exploration. You show up ready to play, but
there is so much that needs to go right in order to pull it off. Parker
always said , "you will never find any cave unless you have the True
Heart". He mentioned some people to whom this applied ( applies) so I
would understand. Bill Gavin had a red heart with the word "TRUE" on his
scooter. Bill Gavin and I always found cave where there had previosly
been none. It always just "appeared" for us, not matter where we dove.
We even added line at Ginnie.
The same thing happened Friday. To tell you the truth, I was scared
that Wakulla Springs cave was going to wall out at 14+ in the big
conduit ( the other 14 did wall out) . We had hit a giant room that
contained an amazing optical illusion making it look like the tunnel
stopped, and we had opted for a tiny offshoot to get around it, and the
current had been so bad in there that it stopped us dead coming out.
Pulling on the rocks at 295 while 14 thousand feet out is not too cool.
I was afraid it was a sinkhole coming up that not only would be too
shallow, but that I knew from the surface was blocked completely. This
would have told us nothing about the cave, and would explain nothing.
That means it could not be right.
We discussed it. I threw out the optical illusion posiblility to JJ
and Brent. Brent said he swerved over there but saw nothing. I told him
that behind him I could not see the ending wall. JJ said he did not see
it either, but then the back guy always has the best view. The tunnel we
had taken seemed to open a bit, but not knowing the tide , that tube
represented a major risk. I had been in Spring Creek and knew exactly
how bad it can really get when tide and rain go against you.
We had several options. We could go to the "G's Little Tunnel", an
open lead way out there, but we all agreed that this should connect to
our last tunnel. We could go to the other 14 grand end to the west of
Cherokee and see if we missed something, but none of us had marked any
sure thing leads in there. The main end still had uninspected rock
slides , and had leads we had noted in the survey but not taken. These
were giant leads, and they were in the conduit path of the cave. We
needed a better look at that last 3500 feet of cave to be sure we had
gone the right way. Indeed we had.
We had put more safeties in the cave on the previous two dives where
we had worked tunnels closer to the entrance in the 7-8 thousand range.
We had tested new routes for decompression and gas mileage ( they were
deeper ) and for time. We had tried some new ideas with the scooters and
with the drive gas. We rebuilt the rebreathers. We rearranged the plans
and the logic. We threw some other options into the mix. We freed the
rest of the team up to do their own explorations. We needed to see what
really could be done, and we needed to be ready to do it anywhere.
Brent had Barry build him a new reel, one that holds 2700 feet of
#24. He loaded that, I took a 1700 reel , JJ had an 1800. We met the
night before and set up our gear, installing the deco bottles after the
Park closed. In the morning at 6, we got rolling, with the first
rebreather team of Trout, Rose and Mee taking off with our big scooters
and drive bottles on their way to exploring M Tunnel where they added
line in two leads. They dropped our gear at the furthest point where we
were on the same route.
The B Tunnel team waited for us and went after us, going on to add
line there. We would have three teams in the water doing gigantic dives
- SOP for the KPP. Just as we were ready to dive, JJ's drysuit valve
blew. This kind of thing is made more annoying by the fact that we bust
our chops to have perfect gear. JJ had tested that suit several times
that week. When gear breaks, we wonder if we are really supposed to dive
that day. Last time we tried this , we had so many things go funky at
the surface , and then my light bulb , which I had just changed moments
earlier in my room, blew in A Tunnel because there was no argon in it.
We opted for an easy dive that day instead.
This day we were not swayed. I looked at JJ - he was cool as usual ,
and behind him in the water was Brent, visible only by his face above
the water, holding Barry's reel in both hands towards me. He had written
"Mack" on the yellow safety tape. He was laughing with that face of his
that is so funny. The last time I saw that face was before the record
dive at Chips when a certain detractor of ours told him that the only
reason we could do anything is that we had all the gear , the team, and
the best divers, and that otherwise we were "nothing" at the NACD
workshop. We were going diving.
We took off with our escort team who check the rebreathers and gear
as we go in. I can not tell you exactly how we did this dive logisticly,
since we have a group who claims they know better than us how to do this
and is trying to disrupt our work, but I can tell you the rest of the
We picked up our extra gear as we went by it, and moved it further
into the cave. We also picked up the safeties we had left at 6500 on our
last dive, and moved them forward ( covering ourselves all the way to 14
thousand feet). We had already done every tunnel up to 11,000 ( Cherokee
Sink), so started working slowly and methodicly from 11 grand.
I stayed on the line, Brent had the left, JJ had the right. When
they went off, I held and spotted for them, adjusting as they moved in
the 80 to 100 foot wide tunnel, and when they signalled me, I marked the
leads and put them in the book, having kept track of exactly where we
were, and I took a couple of survey shots to be sure, and made notes as
to the location and the look of the tunnels. I could see the cave
clearly in the backlight of my two partners.
After 138 minutes of checking and taking notes and sketches, we
hit "The Room" at 14 grand. This time Brent was on that wall, and he
came back with THE signal. I qave him the "end of the line is right
there" signal, and he pulled out "Mack". That answered my question. I
dumped my last safety and adjusted my rebreather to breath from both
regs and all bottles at once ( so I would not be interrupted while
surveying). I now was drawing at 10:1 from 340 cubic feet of gas, I was
on a 30 amp hour nicad light that looks like a Light Sabre, I was riding
a Magnum Gavin scooter that is neutrally buoyant, and towing a full
Gavin untouched, wearing new c-4 and a special hood that made the 68
degree flowing water feel like it was not there, and I was staring down
a tunnel that looked like the most beautiful cave I had ever seen.
School bus sized boulders strewn around, white walls, giant width and
height, and decent water. Huge white crayfish, old speleothems, natural
black bacteria and the look of Tallahasse Power Cave with all kinds of
speactacular features. The cave worked around some kind of sinkhole 300
feet above and took off for the ocean, making all kinds of unexpected
twists and turns, but staying large with many side tunnels. It is as if
the real volume of cave in this region does nto even start until you get
The three of us moved slowly and carefully through the cave. You want
to take as much in as possible when you are this far "Downtown".
Information and data gathered from here might was well be from the
surface of Pluto, and must be treated accordingly. If we don't come back
with it, nobody else ever will. This is why we are there, and our job is
to produce that data. We do.
The next thing I knew , Brent was holding a loop of line in his hand,
and "Mack's" shiny new spool was empty in his hand. JJ was deploying his
giant reel, and I heard them both laughing. When I got to them, they
both pointed at me and gave me the "you're nuts" sign. We then had a
hand signal discussion of who was more nuts, and we all kept pointing at
Moving on, I started noting the time at each survey station. At 170
minutes, I still thought we could get out in 130 since 10 of that time
had been checking out the stuff going into the last deco spot before we
launched. I signalled JJ to wrap it up. He jokingly asked me , "turn
around?", and I pointed to my bottom timer. He tied it off, and then the
discussion started up again as to who was most nuts. This time each of
us was saying it was the other two. We had a good laugh, packed it in,
and cruised on out. I left my whole collection of line arrows and their
holder ( which I keep in my pocket) on the line.
We had gone to our last scooter and left our big one, also we
switched back to those when we got to them. It is always faster laying
the last piece of line with minimal gear, but we have done it with
eveything on us. Also, we figure everything so that we have two (per
man) of whatever it would take to get back to whatever we left. I keep
that score running all of the time. We know what it rally takes to do,
execute and get out of these dives, and we not only do not listen to
anyone who has never done it, we invoke Rule Number One as to even being
on the same property with anyone who thinks otherise. This may make a
few of you understand my huge distaste for B.S. in any form, and why
there is no longer any question as to what the WKPP will and will not
do, and there is no longer any question or discussion as to who knows
best in that regard - we do.
At 14000 feet we started collecting our safeties, and I converted
mine to a rebreather bottle on the spot and hooked it into my system for
the ride out. I disconnected my back gas, and we took off. JJ and Brent
were laughing and examining my converter, as it had not previosuly been
seen by them. I saw them switch regs to a full safety , but mine are
din. JJ had broken the knob of of his bottle when went to turn it on, so
he just unscrewed the reg, I took the bottle, and he switched to a
safety. We put the other reg on his broken bottle, and added it to the
Riding out towing all of the bottles took a lot longer that we
thought. We picked up everything in the cave but one bottle that I did
not pick up for fear that it could rip my drysuit - it was seriously
crusted, and had been in there for a while. There is also another one
that has been in there since 1993, which we keep forgetting to pull out.
Seeing how delayed we were by the syphoning current and the wad of
safeties, we left them all at 6500. This is where we need to leave from
on our next dive, but we only need two of the bottles each to move
forward. We may go do that open circuit with a rebreather team setup and
then pull all of that suff back to 3500 to go out of the cave completely
and start all over again.
Following this dive we need to work the nasty water tunnels that
nobody else will do, finish off the clear stuff that we have ignored for
so long, and then we need to get on with Leon Sinks while we have the
chance ( the relatively "clear" water). Next year we can rework the
outer reaches of Wakulla Springs, since that is not going anywhere and
we know exactly how to do it in one day of diving each time. By then,
all of our guys will be on rebreathers and we will have our newest
tricks in place for everyone. Also, we need our gear at the other sites
- we are spread too thin now to be effective in the 200 square mile
W.K.P. with so much in Wakulla.
At six hours we hit the first deco stop on the sand hill next to B
Tunnel. We knew that the team above would be seriously worried, since we
usually call the time exactly in advance. That bothered me a lot . I did
my 250 stop, my 240, and then broke to 200 to se if anyone was there -
they were not. I grabbed a Gator Aide and went back to 230. I got one
drink before I lost the Gator Aide to the void above me. I turned off my
light, drank some water, restarted my rebreather and floated in the
dark. There was no sense looking at my depth or time, since I had not
yet figured out a deco schedule, and had no tables with me.
One time I did a dive with Gavin, and at 120 feet after a few stops he
asked me for the schedule. I asked him to show me his. He did not have
one. I told him I did not have one. He then frisked me and looked
through everything in my pockets and my books. He wrote me back and
asked if I had a "New York Times" he could read. I told hinm to get out
and get it out of the van and bring it back, or I would get out and read
the schedcule and come back to tell him what it was. This went through
my head, only I remembered taking the deco tables out of my van, and
throwing them in the trash a long time ago.
I wondered if I could just get out right there. 360 minutes or SIX
HOURS at 285-300 is so ridiculous that I did not want to think about it.
I started figuring for a full saturation dive. I knew what that looked
like from 250-180, so worked on the rest. I could not come up with any
reason to do more deco than for 3 hours, but I did come up with a few
very compelling reasons do do LESS between 170 and 100. I tried it. In
my mind I broke the dive into three dives: 120 to 40, 240-130, and 300
only. The first dive cleared in my mind 20 minutes into the 40 foot
stop. The second nearly cleared after the a 40 minute 40 foot stop, but
oxygen did not help it any, and the third cleared to 120 after the 170
stop, producing the second dive as the deco, that in turn producing the
third dive as the deco, and all telling me the whole thing could well be
done without ANY oxygen. That I was not willing to try, since I had to
be back home the next day for sure. I knew absolutely what WOULD work,
so did it. I went ahead with an 8.5 hour deco plan, but knew I was not
going to get out before 2:00 am , so sent up word to Dawn to get me a
room at Wakulla so I could get a couple hours sleep before I left. Panos
got the room, and I got up in time to catch Barry Miller coming out of
the water from his SECOND 3500 foot plus dive of the day ( he , Chris
Werner and Ted Cole went back in and cleanrd up the gear which we left
at 3500 feet).
I could not sleep in the trough since everytime I fell asleep, I
stopped breathing. Not wanting to die in my sleep after a record dive, I
stayed awake. I realized that with the low level of CO2 in my blood, and
with my conditioning, my body was seeing no reason to breath for
extended periods of time. With so much stored oxygen, that feedback
mechanisnm was nonfunctional for me, and actully does not work in me
unless the oxygen surrounding me is lower than in my body at one ata
equivalent of air. I have tried it with the rebreather and with pure
helium to see. I got out after 150 minutes at 30 without any problems,
and went to my room.
At 5:30 I went back down to the dock and got on the horn with the
divers who were still in the water. The whole WKPP crew was still out
there at it, and going smoothly. I loaded my stuff and took off.
I waited until a reasonable hour and phoned Mercedes Scarabin to let
her know that Brent was ok and that he was just packing up his stuff. I
could not get Becca until later. Now I was driving along and I wanted to
tell somebody what we did. Tell somebody about this dive. I called
Carmichael, left a message. He phoned me back, he and Bill Mee were at
Gavin's house. He said, "what do you want me to tell Gavin?". Tell him
18 grand. He will understand.
Then I was driving some more, thinking about who I could tell. There
was only one person who I wanted to tell, and I could not. Parker
Turner. I would have loved to be able to tell Parker Turner. I remember
his frog, it had a name, but I forget it. It was some kind of bizarre
rain forest frog. He told me that this frog was the "best" cave diver.
He still is, but we are not a bad second. I just wish Parker were here
to tell about it.
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Subject: More Diving To 18 Grand
.....starting back where we "left the bottles at 6500"...
And before that.....
As we neared Cherokee Sink on the way out, I started looking for the
old end of the line , hoping to spot the loop. I did not, but I noticed
on my timer that we were at four hours of bottom time already, and that
my two dive partners' lights were fading. We were 11,000 feet from home.
We bobbled back and forth trying to get our speeds more closely matched,
huddling together to be better able to see each other and the line. I
got hung up in JJ. On the way in, I had gotten hung up in Brent and had
to flash him to stop. He immediately tried to turn around to face me ,
thinking he needed to help me, but I grabbed him by the leg and pushed
him forwards, giving him the "go forward" light signal while unhooking
my rebreather gas block from his stage bottle - when we stay together,
we stay together. We are a team.
I turned my light into my face to guage its strength, and it blinded
me. I ran into the roof. I reached back and checked my valves -
everything was there. This was going to be a long ride. Six hours of
scootering in 68 degree water in giant black tunnel may not seem like
much when you read this, but it is about the time it takes to drive from
Palm Beach to Tallahassee. Staying alert is critical. There are T's
everywhere, and a wrong turn could really set you back, not to mention
put you out of the path of the safeties. All three of us are navigating,
usually I am in the back. I illuminate my compass every few minutes so I
can constantly watch it, along with the clock. Knowing exactly where you
are is at all times is critical : if something were to go really wrong,
you have to be able to make the best decision on how to proceed.
Right near the end of the old line I felt like my scooter was slowing
down. I signalled JJ that I was going to make the switch, and he did the
same. The temptation to turn the scooter all the way up is overwhelming
sometimes, and we had been gradually easing ours on up , hoping for more
speed - we got less. In our thinking, the scooters are the most critical
gear, and in our immagination, they are always a little suspicious. Both
of us have switched scooters only to discover that the one we were
riding was at full power.
A few dives ago, JJ had Brent and I hold at the beginning of the dive
and he went back to our escort divers. He came back with both of their
scooters, plus all of his own. I recognized them - both were ocean
scooters I had built for time , not speed. I tried to take the one away
from him, he kept it. As we passed each safety scooter on the floor, he
switched, picking up speed, but somehow ended up all the way out at the
J Tunnel with FOUR scooters on him. We laughed about that for a while.
This time we switched, we were not laughing, and started the calculation
on that scooter. I did not like what I came up with at all, but let's
keep moving, we are 10,000 out, the clock is running, we are at 300
At about 9,500 feet we came into our previous scooters and drive
bottles. JJ and Brent had hung theirs from a ledge in the ceiling,
clipped to the line. I had set mine on the floor eighty feet away ,
holding the line down . Here there is the illusion of mounds of silt,
but it is only four intches deep to the hard rock below. The ceiling is
at 270, the floor at 300 right here. I dropped down and hovered, putting
away my other scooter. I went to switch my drive bottles, and lost my
double ender. No problem, being really anal, I had left a spare one on
the line just in case. I dropped it. I could see the outline of both of
them in the silt. Expecting to reach into endlessness, I was suprised to
recover both of them only four inches down. Glad I dropped them. Glad I
was breathing helium, able to hover inches above the floor with three
scooters, two drive botles, four safeties, and pick two clips up out of
the silt without even puffing it while wearing a rebreather with twim
160's attached to it. I was remembering what Parker Turner told me, "It
is the basics that keep you alive". I was thinking, "This is my basic
lobster-catching buoyancy control at work". I was also thinking, "how am
I doing this with a rebreather?". It is a good thing I do not teach it,
as I have no idea how I do it. I thought about the first question on my
rebreather exam, "What kills the most rebreather divers". I had
answered, "Rule Number One", Jack Kellon got pissed , he said "Task
loading". He told me Tom Mount had answered that question correctly, and
he failed me and Bill Mee. We laughed until we cried, "Task Loading".
Bill Mee and I are the only guys who ever failed the rebreather test.
However, Mount and Jack were correct - turn your back on the rebreather
snake and it bites you.
My dad had a German Shepherd named "Lucky". If you turned and walked
away from Lucky, he bit you in the ass. He bit eveyone but me and my
dad. My brother was his favorite bite. The secret was to pet Lucky
before you turned your back, and to display no fear of him. Everyone who
did not "pet the pony", or was "scared" inside, got bit. Some things
We passed a lead we had started a few dives ago. I looked down it
with my light momentarily, and then turned away. Normally we do
everything we can in each dive, but this one was over. I automaticly
checked for my reel - it was there, loaded. I later dropped it at 6500
feet to reduce drag , and the temptation ( to JJ).
At about 8,000 feet out we were slow, we were loaded down, Brent and
JJ were on backup lights, we pulled up to a safety bottle depot to pick
them up, did it too fast, hit the trigger, and lost the line. It was
broken and gone in the silt way between tie offs in a section of tunnel
on a corner that is 120 feet wide, fifty feet high, and does not have a
good reference to check the compass course. JJ and Brent were in front
and I was behind. I yelled in my rebreather, " I have no ------- idea
where the line is, and gave them the "lost the line light signal". They
immediately froze still in place. Seeing that, I continued the signal
and turned back , looking for my own smoke trail. Even in giant cave
with a rebreather, there is the moving particle water trail that is your
signature. I flipped on my powerful nicad light and illuminated my
compass, held it back in front of me, spotted the "smoke", and dove to
the floor. Even in Tallhassee Tanic Cave, if the line has been in the
silt, it will stay white. There would be no way to spot the suspended
line, so I shrimp trawled for the line running a course perpendicular to
what I knew the survey to be ( you have to ignore the walls since they
present the illusion of a four-way tunnel every time with no reference
point). I did not need to plant and run a line, since I had the two best
dive partners in diving - they held like a rock where they were. This is
the kind of situation when Rule Number One means life or death. You
could search for days in Wakulla for the line and never find it. This is
why I dive with these two guys - they know what to do, when to do it,
and they execute it perfectly every time no matter what else is going on
- they are truely the best in the business.
I got lucky, "scoring" on the first pass. I turned into the survey and
signalled them that I "had the line there, you go ahead and find it
forward ". They did, we moved on. No reason to reapir the line, we would
be the only people who ever get that far anyway. That was a
heart-stopper. We were already late, and Murphy says that when you get
lost off the line, that is when your rebreather SHOULD fail, or your
scooter should stick on, or your light go out. Murphy can't hang with us
for 18 grand - ( in other words, we got lucky this time, Murphy missed
his chance, but that is because he had a much better one waiting for
We unloaded our cargo at 6500, now ready to "fly" out of the cave. We
hit a junction where you can go out two or three difference routes at
6,000 feet. The safeties are in the main tunnel, but we have another
tunnel that we like to ride for the scenic beauty, and because it is
usually clearer. We had ridden it on the way in , and it was in good
shape. However, it is a backflowing syphon on the roof, ingoing spring
on the floor. The line is on the roof, but we know the tunnel and can
ride the floor, but that , we discovered, is IF we have one thing -
We checked our gas supplies and looked at each other , deciding on the
scenic route out. We took that turn, expecting to burst into clear water
any minute, and it never came. The tunnel was hosed, and had gone down
in the five hours we had been diving past it. I figured out what had
happened as I passed a familiar tie off point, but we were committed now
. I was thinking ,as I saw the line holding stiff in the current, "This
thing has sucked the tanic out of A Tunnel all the way down here - it
must have rained like hell out there".
Now Murphy got going. My light died, and so did the second lights of
Brent and JJ - we were all on backup lights. I could see that Brent and
JJ had the Rat Light, I had some other piece that was out of focus, but
I did not want to go away from the working backup to pull a Rat light. I
started thinking that the light must have water in it to be out of
focus, so it is getting ready to fail. I went to check my nicad light to
see how much power had built back up, turned it to my face and flipped
the switch just as I passed through 306 feet - the test tube broke and
it filled with water . I turned it off immediately - I would now REALLY
need this if I had to signal, and it should work in the relatively
non-conducting water. What next?
We came up on some really neat rock formations, poking our way long
the ceiling with our little lights, and sure enough, there goes my
scooter. I flipped on the crippled nicad light, signalled JJ, and he and
I both went for the rocks to switch scooters. I did a quick calculation
- I had about twenty minutes in my other scotoer ( maybe), my big boy
should have about five of rejuvinated life, and my nicad scooter was
1000 feet ahead on the floor with an hour left on it. How bullet proof
was that scooter now? There were four safeties each between there and
the door - not enough to swim out.
We crossed through a nasty spot and blind jumped back to the A Tunnel
line . I had done this twenty times before, but now it was abolutely
critical to get it right and get to the scooters. As we pulled up to
them, the other scooters began to fade. This was now a one shot deal. We
sorted out the gear, got rid of eveything that was not full or charged,
checked our gas, and started out from 3500. My guage read 2000 on my
back gas - I had ditched my drive bottles and was plugged into it. I
started thinking, " That guage has said 2,000 psi for the last two
hours" - I dove down and grabbed a safety bottle.
Now the line is deep, and on the floor, and the vis has dropped. We
usully just follow the cave in and out, but that was not in the cards
now. We stayed on the line . This took us deeper and longer, but Murphy
had given up on us, and everything went smoothly. What we did not know
is that our support team had become so concerned that Dawn had sent
Scott Landon and Steve Straatsma 3500 feet into the cave to look for us,
and they had waited for us for twenty minutes at the 3500 T, and had had
to turn back , not knowing which route we were on. Rat , Cole , and
Werner were gearing back up ( they had just done 80 minutes smoking B
Tunnel, but still had FULL HUNDREDS left over from their dive. Werner
left his leaning up against the tree and came back later to do the
cleanup dive to 3500 with Cole and Rat. The Tough Guys of WKPP.
Later, when I got out and drove home, I was curious as to whether it
was my head or my gear that was getting tired. I immediatley took the
scooters out of the van, ran throgh the checks and burn tested them -
they all had tons of time left. It had been my immagination that told me
the scooters were weak. I checked my guages - my back gas guage was
perfect. I had only started with 3000 . I had switched to back gas from
a drive bottle that I thought was out - it was full , the stage bottle
guage had stuck on zero due to the depth, so I did not use the bottle,
thinking it was empty without questioning how it could be, but with the
way that arrangement works, the rebreatehr does not like funky
intermediate pressures, and I wuld take no chances of blowing an OPV to
get the last of the gas out. I went to rebuild my nicad light only to
find that the tube had a flaw all along, and that there was nothing else
wrong. I checked the backup light, and it was perfect. I took my
rebreather to Jerry to check. I had thought it was different. He said he
had left my original ratio alone on the last rebuild. It was me,
worrying too much . I had done my homework, my gear was perfect, and we
pulled it off, despite the head and the best of Murphy.
What is it like diving to 18 grand? Well, it is like diving to 18
grand, and I think now we have shown that we are the correct team to
explore cave in the WKP, and until you can say, "been there , done
that", this story says it all - not as easy as we make it look, but a
lot easier for us than for anyone else, and it has always been that way.
And the good news is that we have just now discoverd where all of the
really good cave is, we now have access to every last little bit of it
for the long term, and are gearing up to go explore it.
Somebody out there think they have "better technology", better skill,
maybe "do longer bottom times", maybe "tripple our distance". Step on up
and pet Lucky, and see if he bites you . When Lucky spots a battleship
mouth, he goes straight for that rowboat ass.
July 26, 1998
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