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The Bell Tolls

Sunday, January 13, 1991 is a cold and overcast day, an unlucky day. I am watching public television with Annie that evening when my Hamilton County pager blares its sudden warning. Within minutes, Annie is dropping me off at Firehall 20 where Dennis Curry is waiting. A rope has broken, he says, at Megawell.

Megawell, I think, remembering the 309 foot shaft I had last visited during the drought of November, when it had been a dry, friendly, innocuous place. Afterwards, I had written of the complacency I felt on that trip:

No history here. Nobody ever died here, or did anything to be remembered. I am hanging 200 feet up in the dark on a ribbon of nylon less than half an inch thick, trying to decide what is in fact important. Everybody keeps breathing. Everybody's heart keeps beating. We hang on ropes in Megawell, and nobody thinks twice about it.

Two months later, Megawell is a very different place. Weeks of rain have turned a trickle of water into a torrent. Despite this fact, a party of three, apparently down from Illinois for a weekend of vertical caving, hikes up the mountain to the cave. They traverse the crawlways, rig the pit, and descend one by one into the water and wind. One man and one woman climb out. The other man is 200 feet off the floor when the rope, which has evidently been rubbing against the rock at the lip, breaks. Discovering the broken rope, his companion hurriedly ties two other ropes together and returns to the bottom of the pit, where the victim lies face down in a pool of water, dead.

Our team arrives at the base of Crow mountain after being slowed by an embarrassing breakdown of the rescue truck on the interstate. Jackson County Rescue, after verifying that this is indeed a body recovery, has put all activities on hold until our arrival. We get into wetsuits and sort out our gear. Medical kits are conspicuously absent.

Even without the medical packs, there is a small mountain of ropes and gear to be moved up the mountain and to the top of the pit. The county coroner accompanies us into the cave and even helps with the equipment. The tattered end of the victim's rope is inspected; Steve Hudson shows the coroner how some of the fibers have been cut cleanly by the rock while others were torn apart when the rope failed. Rumor has it that this is a previously unused Polish caving rope obtained in Mexico--which sounds to us like an extremely dangerous combination. From a distance, it looks like a typical small diameter rope, enough like legitimate caving rope, apparently, to make the Illinois cavers assume it was safe.

Much preparation--rigging, drilling bolts, and putting together a haul system--is required before anyone descends the pit. Dennis goes first with a radio. I'm next, carrying a body bag. The rigpoint puts me directly in a small waterfall; ledges appear and then rise above me as I descend. I get off rope and walk over to Dennis without looking around. After Dan Twilley comes down with a Sked stretcher, we put on rubber gloves and begin the task of photographing the body using a camera provided by the coroner.

Here on the floor is the victim's pack, torn completely loose from his body. Here are pieces of a flashlight. Here is a badly dented carbide lamp, with the remains of a blue helmet nearby. The victim is on his side with his upper body turned so his unshaven face looks up the pit, one eye half-closed, the other open with the pupil rolled back, his mouth gaping as if in surprise. I have heard it said, in voices hushed in reverence and wonder, that a smile sometimes comes to a person's face at the moment of death, but not everyone is so fortunate. When this man hit the floor of Megawell, he was not smiling.

"This man," Dennis says, "knew real fear. He knew this was it."

We are lucky: the body is twisted, grievously broken internally, but intact. The water has washed away most of the blood. His wool shirt, torn under one arm and on his chest, testifies that he probably hit the wall at least once on the way down. The Petzl ascender tied to his chest is badly bent; his left foot has been yanked almost out of a jungle boot. Only hours before, I think, this was a tall, strong, confident young man. Now it's just a mannequin with a ghastly complexion. We carefully place the victim and all his equipment in the body bag, strap him into the orange capsule of the Sked, and radio for the haul to begin.

Then we huddle on the slope overlooking the shaft as the orange capsule bobs higher and higher in front of us, until finally it disappears into darkness. Hoarse from shouting to be heard over the waterfall, we shiver quietly in the constant mist and wind.

I try to imagine the long fall into darkness. A second to comprehend what was happening. A second to calculate chances of survival, to realize there were none. A couple more seconds to cry out, to pray, to think one last thought and wait for the flash of pain. I look at the stark rock around me, at the waterfall which twists and turns like a spirit, and never have I been so conscious of looking out at the world as if through a window. The air moving in and out of my chest, the beat of my heart, the pulse of my blood: these are the automated motions of the delicate and amazing machine in which I exist, a machine I take very much for granted. It occurs to me that I've had nightmares for years of other people falling into pits, but never--until now--have I ever seriously considered falling myself.

We emerge from the cave into sunshine at 8:00 Monday morning. The victim is long gone, hauled out by cavers from Atlanta and taken down the mountain by other volunteers. That night I hold Annie tight, listening for her heartbeat, and know that I will take life a little less for granted in the future.

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