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Stolen Well Rescue

August 20, 1994

Caution: Names--as I remember them--have not been changed to protect the guilty. Since I include myself in the list of those who made mistakes, I consider this fair. Like some other recent rescues, this one provides a fascinating story that some people would probably prefer to bury under a rock forever.

It is 3:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time when the phone rings at the Noogen House in Huntsville, Alabama. Half awake, I stumble towards the sound, reaching the phone in time only to hear the last of a message being recorded onto the machine.

"Randall, this is Ed," a voice had said. "We've got some cavers overdue in Stolen Well. Call me back as soon as you can."

Randall is eventually awakened and begins gathering information. A group of cavers predominantly from Huntsville had gone to Stolen Well, a multi-drop cave in Jackson County, Alabama. At the bottom of the cave, Pat Smith and B. Stickney had decided to exit via a long crawl out a lower entrance, this despite the fact that no one in the group had ever been that way. Tom Moss, Angela Morgan, and another caver had gone out the upper entrance, derigging the cave behind them. Many hours later, Smith and Stickney had failed to show up at any of the pre-arranged rendezvous sites, and now rescue units were being dispatched from three counties to go find them.

Very likely, the two had simply been unable to find their way out the lower entrance and were holed up at the base of the last drop. But what if they were hypothermic? What if someone was hurt? And there's the damning thing about rescue: You just never seem to have enough information to know how bad the situation might be, so you tend to go in with all the artillery.

Sometime around 6:00 p.m., a dozen members of the Huntsville Squad leave for the cave. I'm with them, since the Hamilton County Cave Team has also been dispatched. We arrive at an otherwise peaceful field at the base of a mountain in light rain. Jackson County Rescue is in charge. Tom Moss and another member of the original group have been sent into the lower entrance to search from that direction. My plan is to keep a low profile, but Ed Nicholas quickly fingers me as a member of the IRT (Initial Response) Team, who are supposed to go in, rig the cave, and very likely find the victims waiting to climb out under their own power. Angela Morgan and another are to lead us to and through the cave.

I suggest that the IRT Team really ought to take some telephones along to provide some communication with the surface. There's some debate of this. A voice relay up the pits, someone says, would work just as well. Finally, we grab three phones and a couple of spools of wire. One of the Huntsville cavers is put in charge of the phones, and we start up a very slick streambed toward the cave. No one present has been yet been to the cave from this direction; Angela and the others in the original party had hiked in from the top, and indeed this was their answer to the most potentially damning question of the day: why they did not simply rerig the cave themselves when the others failed to appear. In the darkness and the rain, Angela later explained, they were unsure that they would to able to find the entrance, which is fairly obscure.

In the daylight of morning, we walk directly to the entrance. I volunteer to help with the phones. My new partner is a bearded man with a ponytail in his forties who looks like a slightly chubby Willie Nelson. In fact, he even sounds like Willie when he sings. He's got a Harley and a girlfriend named Scratch who's also got a Harley, for what that's worth. More important, he had just gotten home from a night on the town before responding to the call. No doubt the tired state we are both in contributes to a miscommunication. No sooner have I said that I'm going to help him with the phones than my guy is on rope and sliding down into the entrance pit, the very first rescuer to enter the cave. He's got no phone or wire with him. He's simply gone.

The leader of the IRT Team announces that the phones will go in last, so as not to slow down the rigging team. Having never been to Stolen Well but imagining it as a tight horror hole, I don't know enough yet to disagree. I gather my equipment and begin to test it as the others move into the cave. Right away, I've got trouble: None of the phones seem to work, so I ask that more be brought up from the staging area. A few minutes later one of the pairs of phones suddenly begins working, so I prepare to enter. I've rigged into the rope to descend when word is shouted up not to bring in the phones, that they've set up a voice relay and the phones are not needed.

Technically, I'm not in charge of the phones at all; I'm just there to assist. So I do what I'm told, and therein make a stupid mistake. I should have been on the radio to Incident Command, letting them know what had been decided. Instead, I sat there in the rain, getting wet and cold. Incident Command, meanwhile, assumes that the phones had been laid and waits with increasing annoyance for information from the cave that never comes. I yell into the cave and get no response--so much for the voice relay. At that point I've had enough. I take my phones and wire and enter the cave.

The first drop is about 20 feet to a small dome room, with a steeply sloping canyon leading on another fifty feet to the second drop, which is about 60 feet. There is more delay here as I wait for Lamont Brown and another caver to abandon the voice relay and descend. At this point I get word from the surface of a new development: the crew from the lower entrance had returned, having been unable to connect to the bottom cave (this was later found to be erronious: Tom Moss had turned back, but the other individual had not, at least not at this point). Soon came more disturbing news: the rigging crew had reached the bottom of the cave, and found no one. It appeared that we might have a real search on our hands. The only good news was that the cave itself was spacious and pleasant, not the horror hole I had imagined.

I have the phone to the bottom of the second drop and am preparing to descend the third when the news comes from below, via the voice relay, that the two missing cavers had been found; both were fine. This was great news. Following this there was more delay in communication as the voice relay was finally abandoned.

Eventually Pat Smith, one of the missing, came up the rope and continued out of the cave. B. Stickney wasn't far behind. The exit from the cave for the rest of us was routine. Buddy Lane was filming at the entrance with his video camera, and I rode back to Chattanooga with him, reveling in the details of a cave trip (and to some extent, a rescue) gone wrong.

Hearsay and Editorial Comments

Apparently there had been quite a discussion among the original group about the decision for Smith and Stickney to go out the lower entrance. Word was there had even been a vote about whether to proceed with that plan. First of all, that entrance had been put strictly off limits by the landowner, an elderly woman who lived nearby, which was why the group originally approached from the top of the mountain. Smith and Stickney had planned to sneak out--not a particularly wise move in the first place, even if they had known the way. (Upon hearing of the ongoing rescue, the landowner tried to have everyone, including the rescuers, arrested for trespassing.) However, it had apparently been agreed that if Stickney and Smith could not find their way out, the others would simply return and rerig the cave for them.

It would appear then, that the blame for the rescue was shared by the entire group: Smith and Stickney for trying to sneak out an unfamiliar route while the cave above was derigged, and the rest of the group for not going after them as agreed.

Yet another unfortunate incident reportedly took place at the staging area while I was still up on the mountain. One of the cavers from Huntsville was apparently annoyed to see Buddy Lane's video camera at the entrance. Perhaps he was worried about publicity. When he got down the mountain, he was even more annoyed to see a reporter and cameraman from a Huntsville TV station shooting video at the staging area. He allegedly picked up a handful of dirt, ran up to the cameraman, and smeared the mud over the lens of a $56,000 Betacam to stop the filming. With that single incident, for which the reporter later declined to press charges, this fellow probably did more public relations damage (at least for the Huntsville Cave Rescue Unit) than the entire rescue itself, which is quite an achievement.

Proven, once again, was the point that without communication from inside the cave, an effective rescue is impeded. Trying to use a voice relay is usually madness. It doesn't work, and it ties up most of your IRT team when you desperately need them to be searching the cave.

I'd say, without a doubt, that Stolen Well was a learning experience for all of us who took part.

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