Man reunited with rescuers 21 years after cave rescue
Matthew Gore suffered life-threatening injuries in a 60-foot fall; it took rescuers over 12 hours to pluck him from the cave
CUMBERLAND COUNTY, Tenn. — On a wintry eve over 21 years ago, three Bryan College students slipped into the mouth of the devil and something went terribly wrong for one. It took over 12 hours to pluck from the bowels of hell one of the three who suffered life-threatening injuries in a 60-foot fall.
His recovery would be the biggest cave rescue in Cumberland County history.
Recently some of those involved gathered at a restaurant in Crossville and, for the first time, rescued and rescuers heard the story from the other’s vantage point.
Matt and Nate Lorenzo were childhood friends, growing up in the Florida city of St. Petersburg. Both ended up as students at the Dayton, TN, college along with Jake Minton of Arkansas.
It was Matt whose feet slipped out from under him as he stood on a crumbling rock ledge. The fall threw him 60 feet down into darkness to the floor of what is called the waterfall room of Saltpeter Cave.
However, just as things went wrong, there were also events that cascaded down into the waterfall room that went right and allowed for the happy ending that led to the recent “cave rescue reunion.”
“There were a lot of miracles that happened,” Nate said of the events that transpired in the cave.
The three novice spelunkers were scheduled to be among a group of students who were to enter the cave with professor Dr. Kurt Wise on a mapping expedition on that Saturday in February 1995.
The trio was impatient and wanted to get a head start so they traveled to Grassy Cove the Friday afternoon before the Saturday trip. It would be their first mistake.
“They came to me several times last week and my first advice to them was to not go,” Wise told a Chronicle reporter at the scene of the rescue. “They asked several more times and I told then not to do it. My second set of advice was a list of things needed. Thank goodness they listened to that.”
Wise told the three that if they insisted on going, to take plenty of light sources, a thermo blanket and canned heat, which they did. That turned out to be one of their many blessings.
Their adventure did not get off to a good start. Not long after entering the cave, their headlamps started working sporadically, sometimes leaving them in the darkness for up to 15 minutes at a time.
Exploring the several passageways and rooms in the cave proved to be more of a challenge than the three had anticipated. Still, they pressed on, until the accident that left blood splattered around the waterfall room and Matt with severe head and internal injuries.
The blow to his head was so bad that a part of his skull was exposed. Both of Matt’s eyes were blackened, his face bloodied and his jaw broken, among other injuries. He would have to undergo reconstructive surgery and would have to learn to walk and talk again.
One of those poor decisions the trio made was not rushing to get help.
“At first, we didn’t feel an urgency to go get help,” Nate recalled. They tried to keep Matt comfortable and warm with thoughts that he was addled but would recover and be able to climb out.
As time passed, and as Matt slipped in and out of consciousness, Nate and Jake realized someone needed to go for help. Hypothermia became a real danger in addition to the massive injuries Matt had suffered.
The decision was made that Jake would go for help while Nate would stay with his childhood friend and try to keep him awake and warm.
Jake was given all the flashlights and climbed out of the waterfalls room and tried to find his way out to summon help. Several times Jake “got turned around,” losing precious time. He finally was able to find the opening of the cave and went to the late Brady sisters’ home to call 911.
Nate and Matt were left with the thermo blanket, one container of canned heat and 16 tea candles. The canned heat was placed near Matt and both climbed under the thermo blanket. The tea candles were then lit two at a time so the two would not be left in total darkness if one went out.
Nate had his back to the waterfalls, which sent a mist through the air.
Asked if he was concerned both might not make it out of the cave alive, Nate responded this week, “Not really. The Lord was down there with us so I had a peace … I had no fear of us not getting out.”
As time went on Matt showed no signs of getting better — his condition was quickly deteriorating.
“Matt was throwing up and the dampness and the stench were bad,” Nate recalled. “But I had to choose between getting away from the smell or trying to keep my friend warm and alive and I just stayed under the blanket with him.”
Now two of the three were in danger of falling to hypothermia and slowly the tea candles were consumed during the wait. As the last two candles flickered their last bursts of life, a light appeared overhead out of the darkness and the rescuers arrived.
“We had been called out for cave rescues in the past and we quickly realized we really didn’t know what we were doing,” Assistant Fire Chief John Hall said at the reunion. “So a bunch of us went to classes and got some training and it sure paid off.”
That training served to be another good piece falling into place.
By this time cave rescuers from multiple counts and two states converged on the scene, joining the Cumberland County Rescue Squad, Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services. Among those were Erlanger Medical Center emergency room head Dr. Dave Wharton and Crossville physician Dr. Mark Fox.
Emergency staff that reached the waterfall room quickly moved to stabilize Matt’s condition. A communication line was run down to the accident scene so medical personnel outside the cave could communicate treatment orders with those treating Gore.
Among those reaching Matt was Terry Cope of the rescue squad who organized the reunion held recently.
Hot coffee, water, food and equipment were shuttled into the cave by teams of rescuers. Also hand-delivered were rope and a basket for safely lifting Matt out of the room. Rigging was put together and Matt was raised up. That was only half the challenge for rescuers.
Cope recalls that in some areas of narrow passageways and inconsistent ground level rescuers got on their hands and knees so that those carrying the basket holding the critically injured man could walk across their backs without danger of jostling the patient.
While the rescue was under way, a snowstorm hit the area. Temperatures were in the mid-20s with windchill measured at zero to five degrees. The temperature in the cave was a balmy 58-60 degrees but an extended period of time in the dampness continued to make hypothermia a real threat.
Matt says today he remembers very little after the fall. What he does remember was waking for a moment as he was carried across a field to a waiting helicopter for a flight to Erlanger’s trauma center in Chattanooga.
“I remember the cold air being whipped down on me by the helicopter’s blades,” he said.
Nate had a different reaction when he had been led from the cave. He looked out across the field around the cave’s opening, wondering where the snow had come from and yet thinking how wonderful it looked.
Cope and other rescue team members traveled to Erlanger the following day to check on Matt’s condition. From time to time the two stayed in contact by telephone.
Matt currently works for Regions Bank and now is manager of the Crossville office. Before her retirement, Matt told his former boss, Cindy Turner, the story about his rescue. Turner had already heard the story from a neighbor and friend, Terry Cope. At her urging, Cope contacted Matt about a reunion and the get-together was hastily organized with about a dozen in attendance.
“It was a great, great night,” said Matt. “It was the first time I met some of the rescue team and first time I got to really spend time with them. Neither side had ever heard the other side of the story.”
Pictures taken by Mike Deck, a member of the cave rescue team, were reviewed. One of his pictures was published in the Chronicle in 1995. It shows Matt wrapped in blankets being carried during the rescue.
As for Nate, Jake and Matt, they have only been back to the cave as a group once.
For Matt, it was something he felt he had to do to get some closure on that night that almost claimed his life.
“I was determined to go back,” Matt said. “My brain was still healing but I went back about three or so months later. We went into the first room, known as the prayer room. At the time that is as far as I wanted to go.”
Two years later Matt went back with his then fiancée, now wife, and Nate. They hiked back to the waterfall room.
“It was very sobering, very therapeutic. I needed it for mental healing,” said Matt.
All three have kept in touch over the years. Matt and Nate still stay in phone contact regularly; both have families and both work at banks. Both are grateful for the day strangers came to their aid and rescued them.
As for Saltpeter Cave, it remains the source of stories, legends and fond memories for many. It is also the scene of at least one tragic death and many rescues of lost or hurt spelunkers. In recent years the cave has been out of the headlines. It is now closed to the public.
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