Saturday, September 23, 1989
Finally! Hank Moon and I were about to get into the truck and make our move. Since 11:00 that morning we had been trading phone calls, trying to decide on a cave, working out logistics, waiting for people to come back from K-Mart, trying to get Hank's car started. Now, at 4:30 in the afternoon, we were loaded up and about to leave for Bicentennial Cave. That's when Destiny called.
Or rather, Dennis Curry called. Annie answered the phone. No, she told Dennis, they've already left. But she opened the door to be sure, and just caught us.
"Dennis says there's somebody in trouble at Mystery!" Annie said.
Hank and I groaned simultaneously. We decided we would drive by and have a look, hoping that we could continue on our trip. As we went down the driveway, I considered going back for my plug for the dam, but decided not to. A few seconds later, we were staring at a large tree that had fallen moments before and completely blocked Scenic Highway. Since the quickest way around was to go back up by the duplex and swing around by the Cravens House, I decided to stop and pick up the plug, after all. When we arrived at Mystery, there was one car pulled over with an older couple sitting inside.
"You the rescue?" they asked.
Seconds later a car pulled up, and a young man jumped out. His companion, we learned, had rigged the 280 foot drop in Mystery with a 200 foot rope. Down there at the end of that rope, directly underneath the road where we stood, someone was hanging in a waterfall. Accoridng to his friend, he the victim was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. This was serious business. My immediate thought was to go in and put the plug in place to stop the water. I was about to do this when the first of the Hamilton County Rescue people arrived. I explained my intentions to them, but they seemed to have no opinion. Just as I was starting for the entrance a second time, Ranger Dennis arrived. "No," Dennis said, "don't put the plug in yet. We may need it more later."
I realized Dennis was right. If we put in the plug now, the water would back up and probably start coming over the top of the dam before we were ready.
About twenty minutes went by as more rescue personnel arrived and we suited up and sorted out the gear. Hank and I were first to arrive at the pit. I yelled down and got no response. Then, from far below, a voice began to call, over and over again.
" Pull...me...up!" came the voice, each syllable echoing for a moment before the next. "Pull...me...up!"
At least, we thought, he's in good enough shape to yell. The truly hypothermic just tend to hang there quietly fading away.
The immediate plan was to get the victim off rope and out of the waterfall, and the quickest way to do that, considering our lack of manpower, was to lower him to the bottom. Using a self-equalizing rig off the three main bolts, we attached another rope to the victim's using a rack and a Gibbs safety, took up slack with a pulley and another Gibbs, then lowered away. Hank, meanwhile, was putting another rope at the waterfall rig point. By this time David Bain and Buddy Lane had arrived, Buddy having enjoyed a Highway Patrol escort from South Pittsburg. My plug was finally put in place to quiet the waterfall. A minute later, Dennis was ready to descend to the victim. He took with him wool blankets, heat packs, warm clothing and a radio.
Buddy and Hank went down next, carrying supplies, while I derigged our lowering system and started rigging another line at the original rig point. I went down next with some medical equipment. When I arrived on bottom, Buddy and Dennis had the victim--a nineteen year rock climber from Atlanta--bundled with heat packs in an alcove of the pit. His first temperature reading was 94.2 degrees; he was shivering uncontrollably. He was big for a climber, six feet tall and 210 pounds, and that had worked to his advantage. A thinner person, hanging motionless and unprotected in a waterfall for two hours, could easily have died from hypothermia.
Over the next thirty minutes, the victim was warmed to normal temperature, then walked around the pit and outfitted with a ropewalker climbing system. Buddy and Dennis climbed slowly out with him while Hank and I packed up gear on the bottom. After we had climbed out, we pulled up the equipment and exited the cave. Outside we found only about ten rescue personnel still present.
Why had the climber rigged a 280 foot pit with a 200 foot rope? Actually, he had another rope and jumars in his pack, but found that hanging in the waterfall without sliding off the end of the rope was difficult enough that he was unable to retrieve and tie on the other rope. "I thought there were would ledges and stuff down there," he explained.
The nightmare that Dennis had imagined had almost come true. On a Saturday afternoon, many of the cavers in Chattanooga were out caving or were otherwise unavailable. Only four of us had initially been able to respond to his call. As it was, we lost time at the start of the rescue--the most precious time of all--because there simply weren't enough cavers to do all the rigging. If any more time had been lost, the outcome might have been serious.
Perhaps it was just luck the way that Hank and I were delayed again and again so that we were called for a rescue just as we got into a truck already loaded with caving gear. Perhaps it was coincidence that a tree in the road made us go back and get the plug for the dam. Call it what you want--Fate or God or Destiny--but whether by accident or by design Hank and I ended up at Mystery Hole.
When Destiny talks, we listen.
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