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Miracle at Nickajack

David Gant knew he was going to die. For many hours--how many he could no longer say--he had been floating in darkness, keeping his head above water in a pocket of air only eight inches high, deep inside the flooded passages of Nickajack Cave. At first, blundering into this air pocket in the near zero visibility of the cave had seemed incredibly good luck. Now it seemed like a cruel joke. The air in the space around him, like the air in the tank on his back, was running out. He could feel his breath coming faster as the level of carbon dioxide rose and oxygen declined.

Each year, inevitably, open water SCUBA divers venture into underwater caves, and the results are usually tragic. There are many rules in cave diving, but two are paramount. You don't go into an underwater cave without the proper training, and you don't go without the proper equipment, including a continuous guideline to the entrance. David Gant had broken those rules, and there was every reason to believe he would die as a result.

Nickajack Cave had been known for centuries. Renegade Chickamauga Indians held war dances near the huge entrance as they plotted to resist the white settlers. To the Confederacy, the cave had been an important source of the saltpeter they used to make gunpowder. For a time, the cave had been commercialized. For years before and after that failed venture, its huge passageways had been a mecca for the adventurous. A huge stalagmite known as Mr. Big in the farthest reaches of the cave was said to be the largest in the world. But when the gates of TVA's Nickajack Dam closed, the water slowly rose to flood most of the cave. When the water had stopped, only fifteen feet of the entrance remained. A few hundred feet back in the passage, the ceiling descended and disappeared into the green waters of Lake Nickajack.

Since 1980, the cave had been protected by TVA as a sanctuary for the thousands of endangered Indiana bats which made it their home. A heavy chain-link fence blocked entry; a prominent sign told of the bats and the stiff penalties for violators. Further inside, a second fence waited for those who ignored the first.

Late on the night of Saturday, August 15, 1992, David Gant and a companion entered the water outside the fence. They knew it was forbidden to explore the cave--above water, at least. Underwater, they wouldn't be seen, and in fact they weren't likely to disturb the bats. Trained in open water diving, they had gone into the cave on three previous occasions. The night before, Gant had speared a tremendous catfish which had fled back into the darkness. This trip would be an attempt to recover the trophy fish.

Visibility in the murky waters of the lake was about two feet, but Gant and his companion knew it would clear somewhat inside. As they descended, the beams of their dive lights disappeared into a greenish nothingness, then illuminated a muddy, rocky bottom.

Some time later, still seeing no sign of the fish, Gant checked his air gauge. Getting the attention of his partner, he signaled that it was time to surface. Together, they followed their bubbles upwards, expecting to emerge into the air filled portion of the cave...only to see a solid cave ceiling appear in their lights. They had wandered too far back into the cave into a no-mans land of completely flooded passages. Rapidly exchanging signals, the pair dropped lower in the water and swam in the direction they thought to be out, then rose toward the surface. Again, the stark reality of the cavern ceiling confronted them. At that moment, the both men panicked. They separated. Gant's companion swam madly in one direction, Gant in another. The companion was the more fortunate of the two, emerging into air-filled passage near the entrance with his tank nearly empty. Gant, having gone even deeper into the cave, surfaced alone in his solitary air pocket, completely cut off from the world above.

At 2 AM Sunday morning, the Marion County Sheriffs Office was notified by Gant's companion of the situation at Nickajack, and a rescue operation was initiated. Depending on who you ask, the rescue became a spectacle that revealed the dark side of volunteer rescue, a battle of inflated egos. The call had initially gone out as a water rescue, and several dive rescue teams had responded. Upon learning the situation, most assumed that this, like almost all of their missions, would be a body recovery. While skilled in open water search and rescue, none of the rescue divers were trained in cave diving. In fact, of the eighty or more people who gathered at the entrance, there was not one person qualified to dive in the murky depths of Nickajack Cave. Yet for the leaders of these teams to admit that their skills and equipment were inadequate for the task was dificult. Did it matter that they could not adequately search the cave? This was a body recover, after all.

One of those with a different view was Buddy Lane, Captain of the Hamilton County Cave Rescue Unit. Knowing that the divers on the scene were not up to this specialized task, he pleaded by telephone that trained caver divers be called in. He asked that he, as a specialist in cave rescue, be allowed to come to the scene to assess the situation. (In the legalities of rescue, a team must be invited to the scene by the agency in charge.) No thank you, he was told. This is a water rescue, the divers said, not a cave rescue. Unable even to approach the cave, Lane played the diplomat, asking at intervals that cave divers be used...but without any positive results.

By dawn, the teams at Nickajack had made three dives. Member's of Gant's family were making sandwiches for the rescuers and holding a prayer vigil near the entrance, asking for a miracle. As far as anyone could tell, none had been forthcoming. Using short reels of guideline, the divers had performed a circular search near the entrance, finding nothing. (Although it was said they claimed to have searched the entire cave system, this was clearly impossible given the short length of line they had available. The divers had barely enough guideline to get out of sight of the entrance.) Exhausted from the search, the divers were finally convinced they needed help. They agreed to allow cave divers be put in motion from Huntsville, 100 miles distant.

Meanwhile, Lane and his lieutenant Dennis Curry were on the telephone to the Tennessee Valley Authority. Just after sunrise on Sunday morning, they met with TVA representatives and obtained the detailed survey of the cave done before it was flooded. This map included vertical profiles showing the exact level of the water in various parts of the cave. It was immediately obvious that there were air pockets in many places. Lane and Curry now believed that Gant might well be alive, treading water in an air pocket or even sitting on a bank in one of the side passages the divers hadn't thought to check.

Lane and Curry next contacted Mark Caldwell, a state emergency services coordinator out of Chattanooga, who had worked with their team before. Caldwell, trusting the judgment of Lane and Curry, drove to the incident scene. There, he was greeted at a mobile command post by the incident commander, who insisted that the operation was a "recovery," not an active rescue, and gave several reasons why the victim could no longer be alive.

Caldwell, understanding that the role of an emergency services coordinator is to assist the "experts," not second-guess them, was confronted with a dilemma. He knew that Lane’s and Curry’s judgment in this matter was important. On the other hand, the incident commander had a great deal of experience in open water rescues. As Caldwell contemplated his options, he decided that Lane and Curry were on the right track. Caldwell talked with Gant’s family members, and told them that until he could establish that Gant was in fact deceased, he was going to treat the incident as an "active rescue." Caldwell informed the IC of his decision to veto the "recovery" status of the operation, and called Lane and Curry to the scene.

Knowing that Gant’s only hope for survival assumed he had found an air pocket, as Lane and Curry had speculated, Caldwell determined that the only thing he could do to increase Gant’s chances was to have TVA open the bypass spillways at nearby Nickajack Dam and lower the water level of the entire thirty mile lake system. This could cost TVA several hundred thousand dollars in lost electrical generating capacity, but TVA operators in Chattanooga responded immediately, and the lake began to drop. Within an hour, it had dropped 14 inches.

Caldwell convinced the irritated incident commander to support the active rescue. Lane and Curry, now on the scene, were taken into the entrance by boat, where the water level had dropped sufficiently to initiate a cave rescue. Using borrowed fins and normal caving gear, the two men swam back into the cave. Both had a wealth of experience in wet caves, often pushing through passages flooded to within an inch or two of the ceiling. Here, with much more room to breath, they were quite at home, spooked only by the large fish which appeared occasionally in front of them.

"Hey!" they shouted at intervals, the sound echoing weirdly against the sides of the passage.

"Hey!" someone shouted back, from deeper in the cave.

It was Gant, alive by a miracle of good timing. Just as the level of oxygen in his air pocket had grown critical, when he was bare moments away from losing consciousness, the water around him had dropped a crucial last fraction of an inch. As the water gently slapped the newly exposed ceiling, Gant had felt a sudden rush of cool air on his face. As he waited, regaining hope, the flow of air grew stronger as the gap between ceiling and water slowly grew.

Swimming toward his shouts, Lane and Curry found that Gant was separated from them by a section of very low airspace. The two men popped out in front of Gant's astonished face, their lights blinding his eyes.

"Are you angels?" he asked, deadly serious, unsure whether he was seeing a hallucination or whether he was truly about to meet God. Sometime during the 17 hours he had been there in the darkness, Gant had experienced a vision. He had seen the divers searching futilely near the entrance. He could see his family waiting and praying outside. And he had seen two angels coming to escort him to heaven.

Gant swam out with those very real angels to the waiting boat to be taken to his family. "Found victim alive," the captain of the dive team wrote in his official report. "Everyone happy." Newspaper and television accounts credited the dive team with the rescue of the man they had abandoned. And while Gant would become a born-again Christian and speak of his miracle in churches across the South, the true story for the most part would remain untold.

"One could not have fictionally scripted the synthesis of so many events necessary for Gant's survival," Mark Caldwell later wrote. Caldwell is man trained to make life and death decisions, to think in terms of probabilities, but like Gant he believes that a higher authority directed the events that night at Nickjack.

Sometimes it pays to believe in miracles.

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