Big Brouhaha at Fern
March 11-12, 1991
Great googly-moogly! At eleven-thirty on a Monday night, just when I should have been in a deep sleep, I was racing down the mountain for Firehall 20 instead.
There was trouble 80 miles away at Surprise Pit, Alabama's deepest sh
Around midnight, we hit the lights and siren and I pulled out with Dennis Curry, David Bain, and Doug Carson on board. Buddy Lane and Dan Twilley were just ahead in Buddy's Blazer. Ever wanted to pass in the turn lane, to "run code" through red lights just like on TV? Ever been in the mood to drive a twisting two lane highway at high speed in an overloaded Chevy suburban at one o'clock in the morning? It's nothing to hope for, believe me.
We arrived at the base of Nat Mountain and learned that Huntsville cavers were already at the cave, but little was known yet about the situation. We knew only that a group of four from Virginia were apparently awaiting rescue on the bottom of the pit after rigging their rope in the waterfall.
We shifted into four-wheel-drive and continued to the start of the trail up the mountain. Ed Nicholas from Huntsville was overseeing the staging area. Bill Torode, in a fine demonstration of Torosion, was trimming and chopping to make room for more vehicles. Since there was still no word from the cave, we commandeered a group of sherpas from Jackson County rescue and headed up the mountain prepared for the worst with much rope and equipment.
Arriving at the sinkhole, we found Dave Gazaway, a paramedic, and two members of the group from Virginia who had not descended the pit. Carl Craig stepped out of the waterfall entrance to report that J.V. Swearingen had put a rope at the 404 foot rig point and gone down the pit some time before, but there had been no communication since. By the time we arrived at the top of Surprise Pit, some 500 feet inside the cave, radio communication had been established. The four from Virginia had wanted to be hauled out, but J.V. had convinced them to climb under their own power.
While I spent some time on the ledge derigging the victims' rope and rigging a safety, one of our ropes was put in place at the 404 next to J.V.'s and climbers rigged in from below. As the victims appeared, we finally got the lowdown on the caper.
The group, from the VPI Grotto, was down on spring break. One of them (Cecil of B.C. Wunderwear fame) had been to the pit before, but did not participate in rigging. Having no working knowledge of the cave, the group rigged the original 437 foot drop next to the waterfall, not realizing that only a short distance away across a narrow ledge was the breakdown bridge and the more commonly used 404 rig point, which is always dry. Around 6:00 p.m., four individuals descended, each getting soaked by the raging waterfall. Concluding that none of them were equipped to climb in the cold water, the victims retreated into the alcove known as Garrisons Grotto in an attempt to escape the wind and spray as they waited for rescue. Those on top, hearing an emergency whistle blast, went for help.
Around 6:00 Tuesday morning, the last of the Virginia group and rescuers exited the cave. We met Bill Torode on the trail, still chopping his way up the mountain. By the time we reached the vehicles, it was daylight.
Analysis: The Virginia group had virtually no detailed knowledge of the cave--certainly no map or specific instructions. When she saw where the rope was rigged, Cecil was said to have remarked that she didn't remember rigging that spot before, but apparently she did not press the point. The rest of the group may not have even known there was another rig point.
When they encountered the waterfall, none of those who descended attempted to change over to climb, nor were they able to communicate the problem to those still on top, who came down to join them and were thus also trapped.
But then, isn't that how it always goes? If you knew what you didn't know, not much in life or caving would surprise you. You have to credit this group for having the guts to wait for rescue rather than attempting to climb out in the waterfall, a decision which might well have resulted in hypothermia and tragedy.
In retrospect, while over a hundred rescuers from at least five different squads responded to the scene, it turned out that one person who knew what he or she was doing could have gotten the group out simply by rerigging their rope at the 404. At the same time, the group showed good judgment in waiting for rescue rather than trying to climb the pit in the water. Although a fast, experienced climber would probably have survived the experience, the potential for disaster was great.
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