published Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

From the bowels of the earth: Rescuers brave awesome, deadly Ellison's Cave to save life

  • photo
    Ellison's Cave features the deepest known cave pit in the continental United States, dropping 586 feet straight down.
    Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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Long after the man who suffered critical injuries deep inside Ellison's Cave was flown to the hospital, rescue workers still were being pulled out.

Eighty expert cavers from Nashville, Chattanooga, Atlanta, Knoxville and Huntsville, Ala., descended into the rock labyrinth under Pigeon Mountain near LaFayette, Ga., for the rescue. They hauled the 54-year-old Pennsylvania man up early Monday afternoon using stretchers, splints and several hauling systems.

"It was real touch and go the whole time," said Buddy Lane, assistant chief of the Chattanooga Hamilton County Rescue Service. "He could have died at any point."

The caver suffered head injuries and a broken left femur, which tore through his skin, Lane said.

Walker County Coordinator David Ashburn said the man was taken to Erlanger hospital in critical condition.

Ellison's Cave is an infamous prize among cavers. It is the 12th-deepest cave in the world and among the top 10 caving destinations in the country.

Fantastic Pit, inside the cave, is the deepest known cave pit in the continental United States. That is one of the draws for cavers.

But people die inside Ellison's Cave. In 2011, two University of Florida students died of hypothermia after being tangled in a rope near a waterfall. In 1999, another caver died of hypothermia.

To appreciate the cave's danger, one has to understand its complexity.

Lane has been inside the cave 150 times since 1972. This is how he describes it:

It's 1,063 feet deep from the highest to the lowest point. First comes 2,000 feet of horizontal walking. Then there is a 125-foot rappel followed by an upclimb of 30 feet into an "attic" section of the cave.

And there is the prize: an open pit 580 feet deep. A massive waterfall flows into the hole.

Pictures in National Geographic make it look like a broad subway tunnel.

For comparison, imagine the Bank of America building in downtown Chattanooga. That is just 300 feet tall.

At the bottom of that pit lies 10 miles of horizontal passageways. That is where the caver was about 4 p.m. Sunday, along with several fellow climbers -- all experienced -- when he fell 40 feet, said Lane.

Two friends climbed down to him and tried to stop his bleeding. The two ended up staying with him the whole time. Because of a skull fracture, he was unconscious for more than 15 minutes, Lane said.

Meanwhile, the other climber made the long climb out of the cave and had to hike some until he could call 911. It was three hours after the accident before emergency personnel were even notified.

Ashburn said emergency medical crews descended with medical equipment and treated him on scene, "just like he was in the E.R."

"They started IVs, they gave him transfusions, they gave him one unit of blood brought from Erlanger," he said.

When rescue workers finally could extract him and send him on a helicopter to Erlanger hospital, nearly 21 hours had elapsed since his fall.

"We credit [his friends] with saving his life," Lane said. Without them, "he might not have lived long enough" to be rescued.

The man's wife flew in from Pennsylvania on Monday afternoon and was with him at the hospital. Authorities have not yet released his name.

"From our viewpoint this is nowhere near over just because he is at the hospital," said Lane.

The operation isn't over until everyone is safely out.

Ashburn said all rescuers and equipment had finally been removed from the cave around 7 p.m. Monday.

Staff writer Lindsay Burkholder contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Joan McClane at jmcclane@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6601. Follow her on Twitter: @JoanGarrettCTFP.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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