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Heroes of the caverns: Cave rescue teams fight cold, wet, dark

Sunday, May 04, 2003

By Lillian Thomas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When Doug Moore got the call that a Boy Scout had been injured in Laurel Caverns, he quickly figured that he'd need at least 45 people for the rescue.

 
 
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He happened to be running a cave-rescue class in Morgantown, W.Va., when the call came at 12:11 p.m. April 26. As he drove to the Fayette County cave, he dispatched crew members by cell phone, arranged for equipment and supplies, and started to figure out the logistics of the rescue.

Class instructors were among those dispatched, and later the whole class was sent to the cave to help out and learn.

Many of the rescuers were involved in the painstaking hand-to-hand transfer of a plastic litter with 12-year-old John Graybeal, who had wrist and leg injuries in a fall, up and down the rocky passageways of the cavern.

The rest did the support work to make it happen: setting up communications, assessing the boy's medical condition, alerting ambulances and a medical helicopter, ferrying messages and supplies in and out, and standing by just in case someone else got hurt.

"And that's a small rescue, in an easy cave, with no real threat to him," said Moore, who sells caving equipment and has been involved in about 25 rescues.

Moore of Enterprise, W.Va., about 35 miles from Morgantown, started caving in 1988. He became involved in cave rescue because he specialized in exploring "really small, wet caves" -- the kind with 3-foot-tall passages filled with a foot of water -- and got called when expertise in that kind of grotto was needed. He will become coordinator of the Eastern Region of the National Cave Rescue Commission this summer.

The commission coordinates cave-rescue teams and provides extensive training in the highly specialized field.

In a cave rescue class, you learn to modify rock, package a patient and lift and lower an injured person. You learn to keep from getting lost or injured yourself.

And you learn to write everything down: A syllabus from a commission course says several times: "If you didn't write it down, you didn't do it."

Rescue teams vary with the caves and situation, but always have an incident commander, who coordinates with the "responsible agent" -- typically the fire chief or sheriff from the area where the cave is located.

The first thing the team does is establish communications, usually via military-style field phones, because radios don't work well underground. A fast-moving advance team of four or five people goes in first to find the cavers if they are lost and assess any injuries.

That team always has a medical professional -- a doctor, nurse, paramedic or emergency medical technician. That person and another team member stay with the victim; the others go back and report to the incident commander.

The commander typically runs things from the surface -- Moore was "in-cave" for about 10 minutes of the nearly seven-hour rescue April 26, for example.

John Graybeal of Ellicott City, Md., was on a guided adventure tour with his Boy Scout troop in a part of Laurel Caverns not on the regular public tour. He was released from Children's Hospital on Wednesday and is recovering at home.

The rescue-team members in the cave are often runners, taking messages in and out if there is no other means of communication and shuttling supplies and rescue equipment in. When people are lost in caves, rescue teams sometimes leave messages with instructions inside plastic bags at various points in the cave. The surface team collects supplies and gets things set up for transporting patients.

If the rescue involves water, divers or wet-cave experts are called in; if it involves lots of vertical shafts, vertical specialists come.

The two most common scenarios for rescues involve inexperienced cavers who outlast their flashlight batteries and experienced cavers who push the envelope and get trapped or hurt in hard-to-reach or unmapped places.

In both cases, the race is against time and cold, which conspire to cause hypothermia and reduce the resistance of an injured person.

That's where packaging the patient comes in. The injured person is wrapped in blankets to keep warm and dry, loaded into a plastic litter and secured in place with padding and webbing.

"And there you've got it, a packaged patient with all the wrappings," said Stephen Meyer, current coordinator of the cave-rescue commission's Eastern Division. Meyer, of Garrett County, Md., started caving 20 years ago. "I was fishing one day along a dam and a buddy of mine said, 'The fish aren't biting. Want to find a cave?' "

There are several things that can make a rescue especially complicated. Water is one. Meyer recalled a case in Virginia in which a team was mapping a cave. The weather forecast called for light rain, "But they ended up getting heavy showers."

The group had gone through a low-lying section of the cave in which they had to shimmy on their backs through water, with only their noses and mouths above water.

With the rainfall, the water level rose and flooded the section. They were trapped behind it for three days. Finally, when rain threatened again and plans were being made to drill in to reach them from another area, the water receded enough for a rescue team to get in and help the five exhausted cavers get out.

Really tight places are another challenge.

"I went up to New York one time, for a caver who was on his 100th trip," said Moore. "He got stuck about 270 feet in. It took 2 1/2 hours to get to him."

The man was in a passage so narrow that when his knee slipped into a crack, he was stuck fast. He stayed there for 54 hours.

That's where modifying the rock comes in -- using drills and explosives to widen passageways or free a person jammed between rocks.

"We are real sensitive about damaging caves," said Meyer. "We have people who work with micro-blasting, using real small, limited explosions that are very precise. The first priority is to get the patient out as rapidly as possible, but we've progressed to a point where we do it with some finesse."

Both Moore and Meyer said they liked the challenge of cave rescue.

"Yeah, it's a challenge definitely," said Meyer. "We always tell students that search is the ultimate game. You go through, follow clues, figure out where the patient is, figure out how to get him out."

Neither Moore nor Meyer has ever been stuck or lost, at least not long enough to call out rescue.

"Never stuck for more than five minutes," said Moore.

"Never lost to where we didn't find our way back out," said Meyer.


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

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