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Cave fall painful but can't keep 12-year-old down

Sunday, May 04, 2003

By Lillian Thomas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

John Graybeal was on a guided adventure tour in Laurel Caverns last weekend with Boy Scout Troop 555 when he lost his footing in a steep section.

John Graybeal, 12, sits on the porch of his home a week after he broke bones in his right arm and leg while caving April 26 at Laurel Caverns. (Steve Ruark)

"I slipped on a rock and fell and I kind of slid until my feet hit this crack, then I flipped over and slammed my head on a rock, which knocked my hard hat off," said the 12-year-old from Ellicott City, Md.

"I flew down 20 or 25 feet. Then my elbow slammed down really hard, then my wrist slammed down. With my femur, it broke because it landed on a half-foot ledge.

"Some people ran over. I knew immediately that my leg and wrist were broken. I knew because of the way my wrist hurt and the way it was hanging over."

The group was in a section of the cave called "The Beach" because of the large quantities of sand there. It is not on the shorter tour that most people take.

The Fayette County cavern has a phone line, so word of the accident, which happened about 11:45 a.m. April 26, quickly got out. John was with his brother, Adam, 14, and his father, also named John, as well as several other members of the troop.

An advance team of four rescuers got to John within the hour and moved him from the steep, rocky place where he'd fallen to a flat area nearby.

"That was the worst part of all. They had to grab me by the leg to do it. It just hurt so much.

"I was a little bit scared. I almost went into shock, but the cave rescuers treated me for that. You do that by covering the person with lots of blankets and talking to them and telling them it's going to be OK, and asking them what their favorite movie is, what their favorite candy is."

They put a splint on his leg and a makeshift sling made out of a trash bag on his arm.

"From there we waited till the other crews got there."

The younger boys in the troop were sent out of the cave, along with John's brother, who called their mother to tell her about the accident. His father stayed with him.

"They got me in this little sled, strapped me down real tight, covered me with lots of blankets."

About 15 rescuers were there at that point, and they started moving John in the litter, bucket-brigade style.

"They'd all line up against the sides and just pass me down. At the end, they would set me down, line up again in front, and do it over and over and over again."

After a while, about 15 more rescuers arrived "and that sped things up a lot."

"When I got out, there was firemen there, and they carried me into the ambulance, drove me to helicopter and took me to Children's Hospital."

John was released from Children's on Wednesday. He can't use crutches because of the broken wrist, so he's moving around with a wheelchair, a walker and by scooting himself around, he said.

He's not sure when he'll return to sixth grade, and how he'll manage.

"I think I might have to type," he said.

Lillian Thomas can be reached at lthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3566.

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