How a group of volunteers helped rescue 5 from Virginia cave

May 5, 2019
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In this Monday, April 29, 2019 photo, Dan Crowder, left, and Naomi Orndorff, members of the Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad cave rescue team, pose with some of their equipment in Blacksburg, Va. The squad assisted in the rescue of five men trapped in Cyclops Cave in Russell County the day before. (Matt Gentry/The Roanoke Times via AP)

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Dan Crowder went to Virginia Tech, but he’s willing to talk UVa basketball if that’s what it takes to save a life.

He was part of the Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad team that rushed to Russell County on the morning of April 28 to help free five men trapped in Cyclops Cave.

Everyone emerged safe after an eight-hour effort, and now the story of how it happened will be part of the local caving lore.

Crowder said he spent most of his time underground with one patient, building rapport and keeping the exhausted man going long enough to climb back into the light of day.

They bonded over University of Virginia sports, and talked about the weather and his favorite foods.

“We were talking about how he was going to go home and empty his hot water heater, just sit there in his shower,” Crowder said. “You’ve got to make everything outside of that damp, dark, awful place seem a lot better than where they are now to keep them moving.”

Crowder and Naomi Orndorff, another Blacksburg cave rescue volunteer, had back-to-back media interviews booked after the rescue.

They said rescues like these get more attention ever since a boys soccer team was famously freed from a Thai cave in 2018. The Blacksburg-based cave team responds to about one rescue every year. Large cave rescues come every two or three years.

The incident began on the evening of April 26, when a group of six novice cavers climbed through an opening in the earth with one rope, a pulley system and reportedly little know-how. They didn’t follow typical safety protocol, including a sign-out sheet to keep track of who goes in and who comes out.

The cave they chose was so challenging that Crowder, an experienced caver, said even he wouldn’t have attempted it with all his gear on a normal day.

Temperatures inside Cyclops Cave drop down to about 55 degrees. It includes three vertical sections: two that are 20 feet tall and one that is 40 feet.

Orndorff and Crowder said the men were able to get in, but then exhaustion and hypothermia set in.

Getting out was another story.

After more than a day underground, one of the younger men in the group was able to climb to safety even without proper equipment. He called for help around 2 a.m.

“They were hardcore,” Crowder said. “They were not classically trained cavers, but I think what they lack in knowledge about caving they make up for in brute force.”

Orndorff was one of the first in Blacksburg to get the call from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management around 5 a.m.

“I just have this gut reaction any time I hear the phone in the middle of the night,” Orndorff said. “It’s almost like you’re a robot. You immediately go into what needs to be done.”

She began assembling a team of people she knew were up to the task. She needed rope skills to navigate the vertical climbs and trained cavers who knew what to expect down there.

“One of the really important things with this cave is that it was really tight,” Orndorff said. “So we had to have people who are the right size to get through the cave.”

The group met at the rescue squad building by 6 a.m. The squad has a cave rescue trailer that’s always ready to go, so the group was able to hit the road and arrive in Russell County a little after 8 a.m. Twenty-three people from the group went to the cave, with three additional members coordinating from Blacksburg.

First responders had already made verbal contact with the patients by then, but no one had reached the group to begin the rescue. The Blacksburg team was part of a coalition of local search and rescue personnel, state agencies and caving clubs from around the region.

The team took two hours to make physical contact as they carried in gear, food, blankets and set up rigging for the journey out. Their job was to raise spirits in the cave, deliver what the patients needed and bring gear to complete the escape.

“Having a Thermos of hot chocolate can save a life,” Crowder said.

The rescue squad used a Vietnam War-era telephone line to establish communication in the hole, because that’s what works best in such a situation. Rescuers then set up a command center on a hill where they could get wireless service.

A volunteer doctor, who also happens to climb caves in his spare time, was among the first to reach the trapped men. The doctor reported hypothermia, but otherwise everyone was OK.

That first contact was made at noon, but it was still a long day ahead, the rescuers said. Each of the patients was assigned an “angel,” and they began working their way out.

“While it was difficult for them, being able to get them out still on their own power — to some extent — made a huge difference,” Orndorff said.

The last trapped man emerged from the hole a little after 6 p.m. and the entire rescue team was out about an hour later. “Our next step is cleaning everything,” Orndorff said as she stood beside the pile of muddy ropes at the Blacksburg Volunteer Rescue Squad building between press interviews.


Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com

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