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All-Nighter in Paradox

October 23, 1993

Tones sounded around 6:00 p.m. on Saturday for a cave rescue in Van Buren county. As we loaded up the trucks at Firehall 20, word came that the location was Paradox Cave. The victim was two drops down in the cave with a dislocated shoulder. We made good time through the town of Dunlap, where the police had every intersection blocked just for us real V.I.P. treatment. However, I should mention that a group of four cavers from Knoxville were flown in by helicopter, which is even more of a status symbol.

As we drove the 2 miles of 4WD road to the parking area just below the upper entrance to the cave, there was some discussion over which entrance to use for the evacuation. Some years before, a boulder had nearly blocked the passage inside the upper entrance, making for an extremely tight squeeze. On the other hand, use of the lower entrance would encompass an additional 4,000 feet of generally miserable passage. It was decided to send the first teams in the upper entrance, and assess the boulder situation.

As the medical team gathered its supplies, I entered the cave around 9:00 p.m with Troy Keith to run the phone line, led by Alan Cressler, a member of the original party. Just inside the entrance was a 20 foot climbdown, followed by a sloping chute. Near the bottom was the offending boulder. It was just barely possible to squeeze over the top and drop down on the far side. Once through a short belly crawl, we emerged in a stooping passage with several holes in the floor, each about 120 feet deep. After crawling along a ledge we descended the furthest of the holes, the normal rig point, which drops into a huge room. Still running the phone wire, we scrambled over a breakdown jumble to the second drop, a 155 footer. The victim, a 24 year old named Andy Porter, was just 200 feet further, in an adjacent passage at the top of a third, shorter drop, wrapped in a sleeping bag. With him were three other members of the original party, including John "Rocco" Stembel.

The accident had apparently occurred early just after Andy had ascended a short pit into a canyon passage. For reasons unknown, the rig point had suddenly collapsed. A large boulder hit Andy from behind, dislocating his shoulder and pinning him to the ground in a fetal position. His headlamp smashed into the floor and shorted out, causing the battery to overheat and cause his only other major injury, a bad burn at waist level. The rigpoint was apparently still useful, because Rocco climbed up from below and was able to get the rock off of Andy.

I hooked up the phone and we had excellent communications to the surface. The medical team (Randy Lane and two sherpas, William and Elizabeth) arrived shortly thereafter. My task complete, I started back out of the cave to look at the entrance problem. Cressler and others thought it would be impossible to move the rock out of the way, but I thought we might do it. After climbing the 155 and 120 foot pits, I arrived at the crawlway to find the boulder was already gone. While we had been arguing about what was possible, the Knoxville cavers had acted and removed the problem.

Outside, I got some food and water and then reentered the cave with Dennis. Bruce Smith and Dan were working to further stabilize and enlarge the "chute" passage; other teams were in the cave rigging the drops. Other teams were rigging the drops. Phones were placed at the top of each drop, and other line run down from the entrance to the trucks. The 120 was being rigged down a different hole where a haul system would be more practical. Rigging a haul system at the 155 was more complicated. Rocco and the others with Andy were getting impatient on the phone. When they were finally told it was okay to start moving the patient, who was going to walk out as much as possible, they suddenly realized that Andy had no boots! They had taken off his boots to put him in the sleeping bag, and sent them out of the cave! Fortunately, I retrieved the boots and zipped down to deliver them. I thought we might need some sort of belay to get Andy up a short climb and over a breakdown pile to the bottom of the 155, but William had set nothing up. Andy was anxious enough to move that he got up and over the pile before I could do much of anything.

There were now four ropes hanging down the 155: the haul line, the belay, and two other ropes, all too close together. I climbed up the breakover to try to untangle the mess. At this point there was a long delay as Andy and Randy stood at the bottom of the pit in the rockfall zone, rigged for the haul. One rock actually fell and hit Rocco (it didn't come from me, although he probably thinks so.) Dennis, coordinating events above, was intent on having everything for the next haul before initiating this one. That was fine, but in retrospect we shouldn't have gotten Andy in the rockfall zone until we were truly ready--assuming we could have stopped him. Andy was ready to move after many hours of waiting.

Once the excess rope had been pulled, the haul went smoothly. From the top of the breakdown pile above, Andy was tied into a line coming down from the 120, then lowered in a gigantic pendulum to avoid having to downclimb the pile. I climbed the original rope, some 100 feet away from Andy and Randy on the haul lines. Once at the top, Andy scooted off with the help with Bruce and Dan and was out of the cave by around 5:00 a.m.

We had been instructed not to worry about carrying out the gear from the bottom of the cave, because a massive "de-rig" team was waiting to enter. Upon reaching the entrance, I found that this team consisted of just a few strong Nashville cavers who were almost overwhelmed by their task. Having done the cave twice and already changed clothes by the time that the call for more help went out, I did not go back in the cave, but a few others did. The last person emerged from the entrance not long after the sun rose over the gorge.

The adventure wasn't quick over yet, though. During the long drive out to the pavement, the "rehab van" had a flat tire. We discovered that the van, like all our Hamilton County trucks, carried no spare. Around Noon, I departed in 1520 as some of the others hung around trying to buy a new tire on a Sunday afternoon in Van Buren County. There was yet another delay when I was flagged down by a group of people whose car was on fire. There was absolutely nothing I could do to help. Fortunately, the fire department arrived and I left after allowing one of the group to call for a ride using the Ham radio autopatch.

An hour later I was out of the shower and asleep between the sheets.

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