published Sunday, June 5th, 2011

Cave rescue workers save one of their own

  • photo
    Injured caver Dirk Siron is hoisted from level to level to the top of Sinking Hole Cave in Winchester, Tenn., on May 29. Siron fell in the cave and a major rescue effort was held to save his life. Photo courtesy of Ron Miller, Chattanooga-Hamilton County Rescue Team.

Dirk Siron had spent 10 hours trapped more than a quarter-mile underground. The 51-year-old’s back, arm and ankle were broken and organ damage and internal bleeding were possibilities.

At the surface, darkness had fallen. After six hours of drilling and dynamiting to widen a 10-inch hole in the limestone walls of the cave near Winchester, Tenn., the rescue team leader knew the plan wasn’t working.

“He was probably in the worst place,” said Brian Bailey, with the Huntsville, Ala., Rescue Team. “Absolutely in the worst place.”

Siron, who lives in Huntsville, had plunged almost 20 feet as he was rappelling down Sinking Cove Cave, landing at its last drop point, or flat surface.

Several feet below him, a 10-inch crawlspace stretched about 25 feet to one of the cave’s exits. The space was claustrophobically tight but it was a simple way out.

“He was so close to being at the bottom, it would have only taken a few hours” to rescue him, Bailey said.

And that’s what rescuers were hoping to do last Sunday, as they launched one of the largest organized rescue missions in the tri-state region in years.

The initial plan was to simply widen the crawlspace and pull Siron to safety.

When workers arrived at the site, several had squeezed down through the cave to reach Siron, bringing protective padding to wrap his body and protect his injuries. But the crawlspace was too narrow for Siron’s wrapped body to pass through and the cave walls were stubborn.

Since Siron had pain in his pelvis, ribs, back and wrist, he had to be kept stiff and stationary for protection from possible internal bleeding. No one knew if his injuries were life-threatening.

Once rescuers determined that the relatively easy way out was not an option, the only way out was up — 2,000 feet to the top entrance of the cave.

Fellow caver

Almost 100 rescue workers from Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee were called to the cave. For many, the mission was personal.

“I don’t think there was a person there that didn’t know Dirk,” Bailey said.

Cavers from the tri-state region rappel and climb in groups, and Siron was one of them, Bailey said. The caves they explore in the region are referred to as “TAG caves” — an acronym for Tennessee Alabama Georgia.

Bailey introduced Siron to the sport. Twenty-two years ago he took Siron to Tumbling Rock Cave in Jackson County, Ala., and Siron “was hooked after that,” Bailey said.

Many experienced cavers in the region also are members of one of the three rescue teams — from Huntsville, Walker County, Ga., and Chattanooga-Hamilton County — that rushed to Sinking Cove Cave, Bailey said. Siron occasionally works with the Huntsville Rescue Team, Bailey said.

But now Siron was the one on the other end of the rescue line.

‘Great initiative’

Workers began to arrive at the cave entrance around 4 p.m. Sunday, nearly three hours after Siron had fallen, said Franklin County Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Chris Guess.

Siron had landed in a pool of freezing water. Fellow cavers pulled him from the water, created a tent using a tarp and set up a compact stove for warmth. One member of the group went for help and the others stayed with their injured friend.

“They took great initiative,” said Chattanooga-Hamilton County Rescue Team Capt. Bob Lewis. “If they didn’t get him warm, he could [have gotten] hypothermia.”

As rescuers began drilling into the crawl space below Siron, others were sent into the cave’s top entrance to devise a back-up plan, Lewis said.

The topside team evaluated seven drop points, each 25 to 50 feet apart, he said. The cave walls were smooth on every side and there weren’t any jagged rocks to tie a rope onto.

This meant an elaborate pulley system would have to be created to hoist Siron up each level of the cave.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be a quick rescue,” Lewis said.

Right away, some rescuers set to work with chisels and sledgehammers to widen tight spaces, while others rigged ropes for a pulley. Anchors for the ropes had to be drilled into the sides of the cave at each of the seven drop points.

“It had never been done in that cave before,” Bailey said. “We had to go in and drill the rock.”

Narrow passages had to be widened to accommodate Siron’s stretcher. Workers used small explosives with a blast equivalent to a .22-caliber rifle, Guess said. But even that was tricky. They had to make sure they didn’t dislodge rocks that could tumble down into the cave, perhaps even as far as Siron.

“[They] had to be very careful not to bury him in,” he said.

A cheer goes up

Teams of 10 to 12 workers were sent to each drop point to begin rigging pulleys, Bailey said. As each successive level of the cave was secured, Siron’s stretcher was carefully hoisted upward.

At each level, Siron would use his one good arm to push against the rock, Bailey said.

It was a long, laborious process.

“He never complained once,” Bailey said. “[But] he did hate to have everyone get out” to rescue him.

Finally, almost 30 hours after the rescue began, Siron’s stretcher emerged from the cave high on the mountain.

Rescue workers cheered.

Lewis could hear the commotion from where he stood near a rescue helicopter at the mountain’s base.

“You could hear an outlandish yelling and cheers,” Lewis said.

As his stretcher was hauled down mountain trails to the helicopter, Siron saw Bailey and thanked him.

“Bryan, I love you man,” Bailey remembers Siron saying before the injured caver was airlifted to Erlanger hospital.

“It was great to see him out and alive,” Bailey said.

Siron had surgery for his injuries, but official reports on his condition were unavailable and he could not be reached for comment.

Friends reached Siron by phone at the hospital, and he told them he expects to be released from the hospital this weekend, Bailey said.

“He’s going to have a long recovery,” Bailey said.

about Joy Lukachick Smith...

Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...

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