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Chattanooga Man Charged in Cave Fiasco

Huntsville (AP)--A Chattanooga cave explorer has been charged with negligence after he allegedly abandoned a group of other cavers late Sunday night near Paint Rock, Alabama.

Details are still being assembled by the NSS Police, but all accounts agree on certain basic facts. On Sunday, July 9, 1989, Rodger Ling was to guide a group of four Huntsville cavers to the bottom cave of Fern via the West Room. Witnesses say that Ling led Tim Stickley, Ed Kilgore, Bill Hansen and Tom Moss into the Morgue Entrance around 11:00 a.m., using a handline down the slippery slope. According to Ling, some of the cavers soon began to exhibit signs of "guano-mania" as packs, equipment and bodies became covered with the bat by-product.

"I told them it was just black mud," Ling says, "but they didn't buy it."

Ling claims that the cavers also made unkind remarks about the treacherous route, which involved climbing back and forth over the top of a deep canyon, the edges of which were covered in slippery guano. All apparently persevered, however, for the seven hundred feet to the first drop. After the trip, authorities were quick to caution that this route is now closed permanently to prevent disturbances to the bats which hiberate below in the canyon. At the time of this trip, the route was officially open only during the summer months.

This 200 foot pit was quickly rigged by Ling, who rappelled down quickly to rig the next drop of 70 feet into the West Room. Others followed at a slower pace. A single 200 foot rope was used to rig the drop into the West Room and the 50 foot pit that followed. Ling pulled the others into the Jericho passage, then took the last two ropes through the breakdown passage to the next pit, a 70 footer. The route, marked by many trampling feet (and knees) was easy to follow, but the rest of the expedition tended to get lost, and it was some time later before all were assembled at the pit. Ling again went first and proceeded down the passage at the bottom to rig the final drop, a 15 footer.

The notorious lip of this last pit was overhung, which allegedly was the cause of considerable foul language. When all five cavers were finally down, a short tour of the bottom cave was attempted. About 2,000 feet of large, pretty passage was traversed upstream, and the Cane Reed torch was observed. A like amount of passage was visited in the larger downstream passage.

Stickley led the way up the 15 and 70 foot drops, with Ling hot on his heels. After passing Stickley in the breakdown, Ling was first up the 50 and 70 footers to the bottom of the 200 foot pit. Hearing Hansen talking to Stickley below, he rigged to climb the 200 footer and was on top sometime before 6:00 p.m. Although Stickley eventually arrived to join him, no others were forthcoming, not even Hansen, who had reportedly gone back into the breakdown passage for reasons unknown. Ling and Stickley huddled inside garbage bags and tried to keep warm.

Ling describes the scene: "Hours went by. The candle I was using for warmth had burned down to a stub, and there was no sign of anyone. Finally Tom Moss appeared. In coming back through the breakdown, he said, they'd gotten lost again."

Another hour or more went by before Hansen and Kilgore finally dragged themselves over the lip of the 200 foot pit. Derigging was quickly accomplished. Ling took the 300 foot rope and started out. In his defense, he did wait at the entrance for the others to emerge. Their lights eventually appeared at the bottom of the sinkhole, but twenty minutes went by before the first person climbed the handline up to the surface.

At that point, Ling made the decision to depart without waiting for all to reach the surface, as required by cave etiquette. Appearing in court today, he appeared unrepentant.

"Yes, I did it!" Ling told reporters. "I had to be work the next morning and I just couldn't wait any longer!"

According to Ling, his own escape was not uneventful. While crashing down the mountain through thick poison ivy and spiders, he nearly twisted his ankle, then walked the wrong way when he reached the road at the bottom. Ling finally reached his truck at 11:30 p.m. When he and his spouse departed Huntsville at 12:30 AM for the two hour drive back to Chattanooga, the rest of the expedition had yet to return to their staged vehicles.

"I am truly sorry for the damage my actions caused to these individuals, and to their families," Ling said later. "They are all good, strong cavers who were on a long, difficult trip. They deserved better than I was able to give."

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