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2 divers drown in canal

Family, friends mourn brothers who loved adventure

HIGHLAND — Byron Hobbs is an experienced scuba diver who taught his sons everything he knows. That's why he forbade them from trying to dive in the "Boob Tube."

It was simply too dangerous.

So when Ashton Hobbs, 23, and B.J. Hobbs, 21, left their father's house Wednesday night, they lied to him. Family members and friends say they'd planned this dive through a 1,200-foot concrete tunnel in the Murdock Canal for several years. The two had even walked the tube last winter when it was dry, doing advance work for this very night. They had never let anyone stop them from scurrying down mountains with homemade equipment or cliff diving, so why let their dad stop them now?

They told their father they were going scuba diving in Tibble Fork Reservoir in American Fork Canyon, and Ashton turned their Suburban in that direction. But when the brothers reached the Micron plant on U-92, he turned right instead of heading into the canyon. Then he turned left onto a dirt road, headlights washing over a "No trespassing" sign and down to the irrigation canal that straddles Lehi and Highland.

The water in the canal flows north from the Provo River up to and around the Point of the Mountain, but it wasn't flowing Wednesday night. The Provo River Water Users Association turned it off earlier in the day and planned to drain the canal in the next few days. The water trapped inside the tunnel, which descends 100 feet under Dry Creek and rises again on the other side, was still, but it filled the entire tube, which is eight feet in diameter.

Ashton and B.J. surveyed the site and agreed the conditions were right for the dive. They called Ashton's wife, Tami, who looked forward to celebrating her first wedding anniversary today.

It was 8 p.m. Ashton told Tami not to worry unless she didn't hear from the brothers in two hours. Then, after ending the call on the cell phone, he slipped his scuba gear over his red wet suit. B.J. did the same over his blue suit. They waded into the water near the west entrance to the tunnel.

There, on the concrete just above the water, is a sign with red letters: "No swimming. No trespassing."

They slipped into the black water and began their descent.

Tami and B.J.'s girlfriend, Jamie Phippen, became alarmed a little after 10 p.m. They hadn't heard from the two men.

Family members drove to the canal site, where they found the Suburban but no sign of Ashton or B.J.

About 11:15 p.m., Byron Hobbs called 911.

The Utah County sheriff's search-and-rescue team rushed to the scene. Nearly 20 professionals and 45 volunteers arrived to help. But officials decided not to try a rescue dive.

"The risks they (the brothers) encountered likely would have been encountered by our guys as well," said Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon. "The risk was not worth it. It's incredibly dangerous. It's confined space. It's comparable to an underwater cave."

The family was upset and ready to undertake the rescue effort themselves, said Tyler Hobbs, Ashton and B.J.'s older brother.

"We wanted to go in, but they wouldn't let us," he said. "They were really unworkable people. They didn't communicate well with us."

Cannon said officers did their best. They contacted the water- users association, and the water manager began to drain the canal into Dry Creek by 1 a.m. As morning came, 60 to 70 family members gathered, waiting and worrying and hoping that their adventuresome boys, brothers, nephews and grandsons had found air pockets that might keep them alive.

The water finished draining at 11 a.m.

Ashton and B.J. made it down the 100-foot incline on the tunnel's west side to the bottom of the tunnel before something went wrong. Maybe their lights went out. Even with them, they may have become disoriented. Their gear could have become tangled. Cannon believes the 30 dives the brothers had made weren't enough to prepare them for diving in a confined space.

"I have 40 dives, and I wouldn't consider myself an experienced diver," Cannon said. "I certainly wouldn't consider myself experienced enough for this dive."

Tyler said the family believes B.J.'s air ran out. Ashton was a soccer star; he was the Deseret Morning News 3A state MVP in 1998 and helped lead Lehi High School to state championships in '97 and '98, then went on to play for Weber State University. He also was a state high school diving champion and was in better shape than B.J., a high school wrestler and wakeboarder — and so his body would have used the air more efficiently.

They went through their air quickly because of the pressure of diving at 100 feet.

The search-and-rescue team found Ashton 600 feet into the tunnel, Cannon said, and B.J. about 200 feet farther in.

"The most difficult thing was bringing them up to their families," Cannon said. "That's always the most difficult thing."

The canal entrances are surrounded by warning signs that should drive off would-be divers, he said.

"I hope the silver lining in this is that others will remember this and choose not to try."

The bodies were taken to the state medical examiner's office. An autopsy is scheduled today. The results, due in a couple of weeks, might reveal the factors that combined to kill Ashton and B.J. Hobbs.

Hours later, friends and family members gathered around the porch at the Hobbs home in Lehi and talked about Ashton, who ran a siding business in Utah County and leaves behind his wife and 6-month-old son Teagan, and B.J., who framed houses.

B.J. started getting power tools as gifts for his 12th birthday. A few days ago he bought a '52 Jeep he planned to rebuild.

"They both loved anything dangerous," said their sister, Shawna Robertson.

"They lived more in their 21 and 23 years than most people do in their lifetimes," Tyler said. "Everybody loved them. Just wait for the funeral; there won't be an empty seat."

He shook his head.

"They've usually been invincible."


E-mail: twalch@desnews.com