Looking for Heroes
We want heroes. We need heroes. I suspect we all want to be heroes, to make that kind of difference in the world. Everybody wants to change channels, hear the Rescue 911 theme, and see William Shatner turn towards the camera to say their name. "Tonight," the smug voice that once commanded the Enterprise would say, "you're going to meet an extraordinary person who was willing to risk his life for a total stranger!"
And that's when it would happen. That's when Captain Kirk would announce to millions of Americans that you were an important person.
A man named Tom Harris drives up from Florida to spend the weekend exploring caves in north Alabama. He walks up to a pit named Moses Tomb, a bodysized hole in the earth that opens into a 208 foot void, with three fellow explorers from Atlanta. Tom rigs in his rappel device using only four brake bars, but nobody notices. The man on bottom is not holding the end of the rope to provide a belay, because he isn't paying attention, either. Tom from Florida, God bless him, starts down the pit, goes out of control, and panics. The cobblestone floor rushes up towards him. He slams into the rocks, bones breaking and tearing through skin. He is on the bottom of the pit, hurt and hurt bad.
Pagers go off on dozens of belts around the South. Sirens echo on the interstate and down the dirt roads of Jackson County. Rescue Squads rush to Moses Tomb, lower paramedics and backboards down the pit, and pull Tom to the surface without incident. Television stations scramble to misreport the facts ("Apparently the victim's cable broke," one declared.) Later, volunteers clean the blood off their equipment and wash their rescue trucks. Tom goes to a special clinic where he tries to learn to walk again. End of story.
Except that it isn't the end of the story. Someone gets on the phone to the producers of Rescue 911. A camera-man, a director, and a couple of production assistants get on a plane for Chattanooga. Movie lights click on.
"Look," Dennis Curry explains, "they're going to come down and film this thing whether we help them or not, with the Rainsville folks. We might as well make sure they show it being done right."
Lord knows it can be done wrong.
True story: a man falls off a cliff on Sand Mountain, Alabama, not far from Moses Tomb. Hamilton County and Walker County Rescue, the acknowledged experts in rope rescue, offer to assist, but the county with jurisdiction declines to share the glory. This is their rescue; they will handle it. Somebody rigs a piece of old cotton rope at the top of the cliff. A paramedic who wasn't supposed to go down the cliff in the first place is using that rope to climb the last bit of the cliff when it breaks. Paramedic falls and dies. Lawyers circle.
Maybe Dennis is right, I think. Maybe education is the answer. You can't keep a cave rescue from being the top story on Eyewitness News no matter how far away you keep the reporters, so you might as well help them tell the true story.
I arrive at Moses Tomb at seven o'clock on a Friday morning just as the sun is peeking over the rim of the cove. The three from Atlanta are filmed walking the trail towards the cave, making casual conversation with George, a stuntman who is playing the part of Tom. They recreate the mistakes and their horror while Buddy Lane drops M-80's down the pit to simulate the sound of a body hitting the floor.
"Welcome to the exciting world of television," Michael Collins says as we stand around and watch his crew shoot each scene again and again. Michael, the Director, is a bearded, amiable fellow with a little pigtail that tells you he's more at home in Los Angeles than Jackson County, Alabama. Yet he has braved elements across the country, recreated hang gliding accidents, climbed Mount Whitney to film a mountain rescue. Next week he's going to be down in the New York subway, where a man fell off the platform in front of a train.
Michael and his crew seem sincerely committed to doing the story truthfully and responsibly, and of course, they plan to include a few minutes on the beauty of caves and the importance of proper training. Whether that tape will survive the editing back in Los Angeles remains to be seen.
It's not a simple question. Tom Harris, the victim at Moses Tomb did not lack equipment, training, and common sense. Tom wasn't a kid who tried to climb down Moses Tomb on a knotted clothesline. He was a well-equipped caver who simply lacked vertical experience. Landowners, it was argued, would conclude that caving is too dangerous to allow no matter how experienced the cavers knocking on their doors. The problem with these "real life" rescue shows, the argument goes, is that they refuse to assess blame for what caused the accident in the first place. They make heroes without making villains, and that isn't how it works in real life, at least not in all cases.
The volunteer rescue squads don't worry about closing caves or making cavers look like thrill-seekers. Their problem is finding money to keep operating without having to sell donuts at stoplights. Publicity means free advertising, a chance to make a case for county funds, and to get some personal reward for the long hours spent training and sitting in staff meetings. While the system isn't perfect, no one can deny that volunteer rescue squads do save lives, and a lot of these folks are very deserving of a moment in the spotlight once in a while.
So we stand off to the side and watch Hollywood interact with Jackson County, Alabama. Patrick the cameraman doesn't ask for a tripod instead, he calls for his "sticks." You don't put a fresh battery in his camera; you pop in a new "brick." Michael says "Action," just like in the movies. The atmosphere is quiet but intense, and apparently nerve-wracking for those in front of the camera. The would-be actors blow their lines and get tangled up taking off their jackets. Stuntman George, transformed from a clean-cut city dweller into a bearded caver by a makeup woman from Nashville, forgets to put on his helmet. The caterer sets up in the field and waits two hours before we come in for lunch. By the time the crew comes down the mountain from an afternoon of filming, darkness has fallen.
The next day we meet at sunrise at Tiftonia Pit, a hundred footer near Chattanooga which has been judged more suitable for filming the actual in-cave footage than Moses Tomb. In one corner an eight-by-eight plywood platform has been constructed where George is to recreate the fall. A haul system is set up to lower and extract people and equipment from the pit. Experts rig, argue, and rerig safety ropes across the top of the pit for the cameras, lights, and personnel.
The crew films George making a few rappels down the pit. Then Michael and I help George's stunt assistant put together big cardboard boxes which are stacked and taped together on the platform three high and five deep. On top of this goes a layer of foam and blankets. George makes ready for his stunt. But whatever can go wrong, does. The belt batteries--all five of them--go dead in the cold at the bottom of the pit. The generator--or "gennie," in Hollywood talk--isn't working. One by one the movie lights die. Michael pulls a tattered list of shots from his back pocket, shakes his head.
"We should have a new gennie up in a few minutes," Lisa says over the radio. Lisa is a pretty girl who basically runs the administrative side of the filming.
"Don't tell me about the damned generator," Michael says, "Just get me some light down here!" He and Patrick mutter back and forth about the quality of equipment and support they're getting from Los Angeles. For a major television show, the network is surprisingly cheap. The crew is staying at a budget motel. To spend $30.00 to hire someone to watch the equipment overnight, Lisa has to call Los Angeles.
Yet another frosty sunrise comes to Tiftonia Pit. Forty people stand around sipping coffee with their breath fogging in the air. Cameras and personnel are lowered into the pit; George puts on his beard and prepares for the stunt.
"How'd you get into this business?" I ask him.
"Just lucky, I suppose," he says. Actually, he explains, he had a friend who helped him get started.
George rigs into his rope with four bars, gets in position, and waits for the call of "Action." When it comes, he lets go. Boom! The sound of his body hitting the boxes echoes up the pit, followed by applause as he signals he is okay. "Perfect!" Michael says, "Absolutely perfect. Let's do it again." Boom! Boom! Boom! By the time George is finished, there is quite a dent in the top layer of boxes.
I descend to provide bottom belays as Dennis and Buddy make speed rappells down the pit. Dennis, after a visit with the makeup woman, has been given black hair and a full beard. Now he is playing the part of Tom. Buddy has a tiny camera mounted on his helmet and a forty pound video unit on his back. The "Buddycam," we call him. The Buddycam screams down the pit again and again, trying to get a "point of view" of the walls flying past. Hank Moon, above, has an even more crucial role. Michael decides he likes the way leaves drift down the shaft every time someone backs over the lip. "Cue the leaves," someone says, and Hank expertly tosses handfuls into the pit.
We tear down the boxes and clear the platform for use as a camera deck, and then, out of nowhere, I get my big break. "Hey," Patrick says, "you mind sticking close and helping me out?" So I pan the lights, fetch fresh tapes, follow him around to set up the "sticks" at his command.
"You're a happening grip," Patrick tells me as the hours go by, asking me if I've worked in television before (why yes, Patrick, I have), keeping me loyal with praise.
Darkness falls outside. Hamburgers arrive and are consumed by those on top. On the bottom of the pit, with the movie lights shining down, it is daylight still. George is sprawled in the mud on the floor, his sweatshirt ripped and fake blood oozing from his wounds. Anthony the paramedic radios vital signs to the surface; Ranger Curry makes his dramatic entrance.
And then it comes.
Out of the darkness, lowered from above, the litter and its tender, paramedic Jerry Slaughter, descend at a slow and aristocratic pace. In the artificial light the bright blue steel litter, with carabiners and webbing of all colors hanging from it like ribbons of state, looks as exotic as a lunar lander coming into the pit. The cheapskates in Los Angeles just got their money's worth, I think, with this one scene. George is strapped into the litter, where he remains for an hour or so as the first few feet of the lift are filmed. Then George is released and a bearded mannequin put in his place. Buddy and Dennis are filmed accompanying the litter towards the surface.
Ten o'clock, and the camera finally stops rolling. With a few thousand pounds of equipment and bodies to get up the pit, it is past midnight when we are finished. It's been three long days with these guys, and I'm starting to think and dream in terms of wide shots, tight shots, and closeups. The crew is staying one more day to finish up, but I am calling it a wrap.
Back at home, I sit and think about the experience.
Why in God's name did I do it? I worked twelve to sixteen hour days, squinting into the white lights, jumping around to move boxes and tripods and stay out of the way, begging like a puppy for compliments, happy just to be in the middle of things.
Like everybody else, I just wanted to be doing something that mattered, be a part of something a little bigger. In a world where good people don't often make the news, it's nice to make a difference once in a while.
CBS aired the Moses Tomb episode aired on March 26, devoting a full half hour to the incident.
The editing of shots from Moses Tomb, Tiftonia Pit, and other locations was slick, convincing, and apparently true to actual events. The segment ended with a touching visit with Tom Harris, who has bravely carried on with his life despite his paralysis.
Aside from the introduction to the show in which William Shatner mentioned the dangers of overconfidence, no distinct safety message was given. The NSS, its grottos, and the formal and informal training that is available were not mentioned. Alas, not a word was said of the fragile nature of caves or the need to protect the underground. Baby, that's show biz.
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