Full story of the 57-hour ordeal to save stricken caver

‘I’m mighty glad to be out of there’: First words of caver who spent two-and a-half DAYS strapped to a stretcher with a broken jaw and leg while being squeezed through tiny passages by 250 rescuers working in underground human chain for 12-hour shifts

When a caver fell 50ft from a ledge deep under a windswept mountain in the Brecon Beacons, it set off an incredible chain of events that saw rescuers from across Britain rally together to save him in one of the most arduous missions of its kind.

Working in 12-hour shifts up to 900ft underground, some 250 fellow cavers painstakingly carried the man out of the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave system through a dark labyrinth of twisting passages as narrow as their shoulders interspersed by gushing streams and waterfalls.

The near 57-hour operation – believed to be the longest stretcher carry in British history – finally ended at 7.45pm last night when the casualty, said to be in his 40s and from Hampshire, was brought to the surface and applauded by exhausted rescuers before being taken to hospital by ambulance.

His first words were, ‘I’m mighty glad to be out of there’, a bystander told MailOnline.  

He was said to be in good spirits and will survive the ordeal, which left him with a suspected spinal injury, a compound fracture to his leg breaking both his fibula and tibia, broken breast bone and collar bone – as well as a broken jaw, mouth injuries and lacerations to his neck. 

Below we retell the epic story of how the stricken caver was carried back to the surface. 

CAVER FALLS FROM LEDGE 

Saturday – Around midday

Up to 900ft underground 

The caver falls at least 50ft near the Cwm Dwr entrance to the cave. He is believed to have slipped off a ledge before grabbing a boulder to break his fall. 

But the boulder gave way, causing him to fall even further. It then landed on top of him and knocked him out.

One of the rescuers says: ‘He is extremely lucky to have survived the fall. He was unconscious for about a minute and was in hell of a lot of pain when he came around.’  

He suffered suspected spinal injuries, a compound fracture to his leg breaking both his fibula and tibia, broken breast bone and collar bone – as well as suffering a broken jaw, mouth injuries and lacerations to his neck.   

A file photo of a drop near the section in the cave system where the caver fell and was seriously injured

EMERGENCY TEAMS ALERTED

Saturday – approx 1pm  

Another caver who is with the injured man notifies police, who call in specialist rescuers that same day. 

The rescuers reach the caver but he is too hurt to be moved. It is also decided he cannot be evacuated from the Cwn Dwr entrance due to the nature of his injuries. 

Instead it is decided he will have to be stretchered through another route past caving landmarks called Marble Showers and Great Oxbow to reach the surface at a mountain spot called Top Entrance. 

The spot where the caver fell does not have a significant amount of standing water, but the atmosphere is cold and dank. 

The first priority is to keep him warm using blankets and heat packs to avoid hypothermia. Two of the rescue team are understood to be A&E consultants. 

He is fitted with a canula and given fluids and morphine. He is described as in his 40s, from Hampshire, and had been staying in a £9-a-night cottage near the entrance to the caves. At 37 miles in length they are Britain’s third longest.   

HUNDREDS MOBILISE FOR RESCUE  

A huge mobilisation effort begins which sees 250 specialist rescuers, fellow cavers and mountain rescue teams flock to Ogof Ffynnon Ddu to help with the rescue. 

The rescue mission is led by the South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team – who previously helped save 12 young Thai footballers and their coach from flooded caves in July 2018.

Seven other specialist teams travel from across the UK – as far away as North Yorkshire and Essex – to join in and offer their equipment.  

Cave rescue team member Julian Carter said: ‘We know how to handle these situations.’

Another rescuer says: ‘It is going to be a slow process but we are confident we can get him out for medical treatment.

‘We work on the basis that it will take ten times longer to get him out than it took him to get there. So if it took him three hours to reach the spot where he was injured then it could take us 30 hours to bring him back.

‘It is all about safety and doing it properly.’

Seven other specialist teams travel from across the UK – as far away as North Yorkshire and Essex – to join in and offer their equipment. They are pictured near the entrance to the Ogof Ffynon Ddu caves

PAINSTAKING EVACUATION 

Teams work 12-hour shifts in the exhausting task of carrying the caver on a spinal board through a two-mile network of twisting passages as narrow as their shoulders interspersed by gushing streams and waterfalls. 

‘Think about it like crawling under your dining room chairs,’ one caver tells The Times after eight hours underground. 

Rescuers kept ‘treats’ in their helmets to keep their spirits up

Rescuers are seen carrying the injured caver one a stretcher through the cave system yesterday evening

Rescue workers operated in shifts, passing the man on the stretcher through the cave system – which is the third longest in the UK

The teams winch the heavily-sedated casualty up specially constructed rescue routes with ropes secured by bolts. 

A floating stretcher is used as teams move the man along an active stream. 

Rescuers describe the casualty as being ‘in a bad way’ and say he is ‘lucky to still be with us’. 

A total of 250 people are involved with up to 70 underground at any one time. 

‘I’M MIGHTLY GLAD TO BE OUT OF THERE’  

7.45pm Monday November 8  

Altitude – 1,217 ft 

The victim is extracted from the cave at the top entrance of the cave system some 56 hours and 45 minutes after the rescue began. 

He is clapped and cheered by rescuers before being helped into a cave rescue Land Rover ready to be transported down to a waiting ambulance. 

The casualty is described as being ‘in good spirits’ and his injuries are not life threatening. He is heard saying, ‘I’m mightly glad to be out of there.’  

The caver was clapped and cheered by rescuers before being helped into a cave rescue Land Rover ready to be transported down to a waiting ambulance

Mountain rescue attend but thick fog, rain, wind and darkness mean the man cannot be airlifted to Morriston Hospital in Swansea by helicopter. 

The operation is the longest of its kind to be conducted in Wales.  

Several South Wales Ambulance Service vehicles are also in attendance, including a hazardous area response team who are trained specifically to deal with large-scale incidents.

They have supplied rescuers with oxygen cylinders to take into the caves. 

One rescuer says: ‘It was bloody hard work. But well worth to know he is out and alive – it could have been any of us in there. It is good to know there are cavers who are your mates to save your life.’      

The operation, which has taken 56 hours and 45 minutes and spanned nearly three days, is the longest of its kind to be conducted in Wales 

Paul Taylor, a fellow member of the caving team, said: ‘As he was being stretchered from the mouth of the cave to a waiting ambulance, he managed to get a few words out. 

‘He said ”I’m mighty relieved to be out of there.”. 

‘Thank goodness he made it. He was exhausted, of course, and he’d broken his leg, so he wasn’t exactly jumping around and flapping his arms in the air, but he clearly felt that sense of relief.’ 

Mr Taylor said the rescue crew used ‘cabling’ to communicate with the victim as throughout the operation to locate him and get him to safety. 

He explaiend: ‘Cabling works on induction – a bit like when you can manipulate iron filings with a magnet. It enables you to send text messages underground through rock, even though there is no phone signal.

‘This enabled the rescue team to assess his condition and keep him informed as to what they were doing and how close they were to getting him out. 

‘The guys were tireless in their efforts to get him up and we are all so very grateful to them for their heroics. They’ve saved his life.’ 

The operation, which has taken three days, is the longest of its kind to be conducted in Wales, with the man originally planned to be transported to hospital via air ambulance, but the wet weather meant the helicopter could not land. The man has instead been brought down from the cave entrance and is being transported to hospital by car

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