Cave rescuers in the Southeast have watched with apprehension and relief as the 12 boys trapped in a Thailand cavern have been extricated, one by one.
"They've got to be jubilant that they’ve pulled off what they’ve done," said Buddy Lane, assistant chief of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Rescue Service and a seasoned cave rescuer.
Lane spoke Monday when a second group of four boys had been brought out of the flooded cave by divers navigating narrow flooded passageways. For parts of the nine-hour journey out of the cave the boys have worn scuba gear, swimming through murky water.
All 12 of the boys and their soccer coach had been rescued from the cave as of Tuesday morning, Atlanta time, according to news reports.
"This is not a cakewalk for (the rescuers)," said Lane. "This is real dangerous for them. It's a hard cave trip, a tough diving situation. . . If one of the kids panics, there's no telling what that would do to the diver."
In fact, early in the operation one of the Thai rescuers, a former Thai Navy Seal, died after running out of oxygen, demonstrating how dangerous the rescue can be for rescuers.
Lane, 67, has been conducting cave rescues since the 1970s, including such high-profile operations as the 1991 rescue of a female caver injured by a falling rock in New Mexico's Lechuguilla Cave, the deepest cave in the United States. The effort kept him underground for five days.
In Thailand, the boys and their soccer coach were exploring the cave network on June 23 when they were trapped by heavy seasonal rains.
Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia are home to one of the biggest cave networks in the United States. Lane said there are 14,000 caves within 90 minutes of Chattanooga. Only a few, such as Raccoon Mountain, are operated as commercial attractions. Most are known only to amateur explorers -- and to rescue personnel who help free those amateurs when they get in trouble.
There is little cave diving in the Southeastern caves, and that's fine with Bob Lewis, chief of the Chattanooga Hamilton County Rescue Service. "No desire," he said. Being in a dark narrow tunnel is hard enough without worrying about suffocating, he said.
Many of Lewis' rescues involve winching victims back out of the vertical pits that distinguish Southeastern caves. One of those took place recentlhy at Georgia's Ellison's Cave, on Pigeon Mountain, near LaFayette. Ellison’s has multiple pits, including 586-foot Fantastic Pit, the deepest in the continental United States.
Lane did some impromptu diving on one of his most famous rescues, a 1992 operation at Nickajack Cave near Chattanooga, which was flooded when the TVA closed the Nickajack Dam in 1967.
At the entrance, the cave ceiling is about 20 feet above the water, but farther back inside the cave the ceiling slopes downward and meets the surface of the water.
A pair of scuba divers had been hoping to spear catfish at the cave entrance, but lost their way in the low visibility water. One escaped, the other, a man named David Gant, swam a few thousand feet down a flooded passage and away from freedom. As his tanks ran out and his headlamp died, he found a pocket of air, and there he stayed for the next 14 hours, bobbing in the water, clinging to a stalactite, waiting alone in the dark to die.
Lane and his partner, Dennis Curry, convinced the TVA to lower the lake level, which opened up a passage to the chamber where Gant was trapped, but only by about 6 inches. Wearing swim fins (but no tanks), Lane and Curry paddled deeper into the cave, hollering, until they heard Gant holler in return.
"Are you angels?" Gant asked.
"I've been called many things," said Curry, "but not an angel."
Lane and Lewis both agree that the rescuers in Thailand deserve enormous praise.
Said Lewis, "They are definitely heroes, doing what they're doing."
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