Lots of people have been asking for the inside scoop on last week’s tragedy in the cave, so here’s a quick recap.
John got stuck in the single worst spot in the cave, head down a 70 degree slope, and unable to get himself out. Add to that the tight squeeze to get into that spot at the end of 50′ of crawling through a tube narrow enough to induce a panic attack in many ordinary people.
This meant that not only was it difficult for us to reach him, but any rope systems we set up to pull him out had to make at least four 90 degree turns and rub against at least five feet of rock. The rope drag caused by this rubbing, especially when weight was put on the rope, is impossible to fight, even with seven people on two separate 3-to-1 mechanical advantage systems (which meant it was like 21 people pulling as hard as they could).
Also, we didn’t have a straight-up pull, but instead needed to bring him up, where his feet hit the roof and stopped, then over.
Anyway, it was difficult. When I got myself deeper into the cave and saw all the rope drag, I quickly got the drills back in there and we placed a pair of bolts to which we attached pulleys which eliminated perhaps 90% of the friction in the system.
Then when we hauled on the rope, we were able to raise John a foot at a time. Very encouraging! He knocked knuckles and pulled, then reset the systems and did it again and again.
The Command Post up top had been ordering me to come outside for a break (I spent 8 hours down there but felt fine) and when things finally seemed to be going great, I finally obeyed and headed up.
I briefed about 20 law enforcement and other emergency services leaders, then was sent to give an update to the press. About the time I was telling them that things were going great and we might have him out in a few hours, a piece of gear failed and everything went sour.
I heard three different accounts of which piece broke. At first I heard that a prussik failed (which was capturing any progress we made on raising the ropes) but it couldn’t have been that because the other rope would have held the load. I also heard that a cam stuck in a crack and a bolt drilled into the rock had failed. Either way, it was due to the clayish-rock of the cave.
A piece of gear caught a rescuer on the face and paramedics gave him stitches before he exited the cave. A delay was caused in having to get that rescuer out from deep within the narrow tube, having to replace the blown piece, and I can only imagine what else went on at that time. It surely wasn’t very encouraging for John, either, and neither was his difficulty breathing that ensued.
By midnight, Brandon Kowallis (an extremely highly-respected local caver) crawled near enough to John to verify that he had passed away.
I woke up at 4 a.m., checked the news, and found out.
What a disappointment!! In ten years of Search and Rescue, this is the first time we’ve found someone alive an not brought them out alive. And our disappointment is nothing compared to the loss to the family! My heart goes out to them.
I spent about 45 minutes talking with them when things were going good, or before I knew they had gone bad. I showed the pictures of the systems and rescuers doing their best.
They were, and have since been, nothing but grateful and supportive. John’s father cited the way rescuers spent ten hours at a time underground and refused to leave until they had succeeded in retrieving his son.
For days afterward, I reviewed the whole mission, wishing we’d have done this tiny detail differently or done that a little sooner. But it’s no use second guessing things. We did our best.
Had one of our bolts failed? Dave and I discussed where to drill, trying to stay clear of cracks that might make the placement weaker. I asked him if the rock had felt solid the entire way in as he drilled his hole and he affirmed that it had. My placement also felt solid all the way in. I don’t think our bolts failed, as various factors and other rescuers’ opinions tell me it as a cam lower down, but the uncertainty plagued me for two or three days afterward.
In the last day or two, I’ve better accepted that I did all I could. Besides getting the bolts placed, I find some relief in knowing that I organized a radio patch deep in the cave that allowed John to speak with his wife and brothers. They shared words of encouragement and it clearly cheered John up considerably. I wish I had let them talk for much longer.
Hindsight is 20/30. I couldn’t have known it would be their last chance. I thought we’d have him out and save in a matter of hours.
In the end, officials have decided to close the cave. They have decided that it’s too difficult and dangerous to bring John out with the added complications. Another tragedy atop a much worse one.
Yesterday I spoke with the former teen who got stuck in the same spot five years ago, and we barely got him out alive. He’s having a difficult time with this new tragedy. I learned more about his experience in the cave, and I can see why he would.
My friends and neighbors, and strangers writing to the SAR website, are all supportive and concerned about the rescuers as well as the family. The Sheriff department held a critical incident stress debriefing on Saturday evening which was attended by fifty or sixty people. My adorable 5 year old neighbor girl brought me a banana in a decorated sack with a pair of notes that read “You are loved” and “thank you for…cherieing [trying] to save that man.”
Anyway, there’s the scoop. I’m fine. I hope the family is. I’m sure I’ll think this over for a while yet, but less and less often.
And it’s nice to consider, as several friends have pointed out, that not only do our many, many, many successful rescues when we intervened on the worst day of people’s lives, far outweigh any failure, but that our efforts themselves are not entirely a failure. The mere fact that we were there, that we tried, that we never gave up as long as there was any chance, must provide some comfort to the family.