150 rescuers on scene for 19 trapped in cave by rising water
Two police officers who tried to rescue the tourists were among those inside; the group waded out in neck-deep water
The Associated Press
HORSE CAVE, Ky. — Flash flooding threatened to trap a group of college students inside a Kentucky cave Thursday, but they navigated through neck-deep water to safety, authorities said.
The 19 people who escaped had to clutch onto a rope to handle the swift currents of floodwaters near the entrance of Hidden River Cave.
The group that spent more than six hours inside the cave included Clemson University students on a field trip, four tour guides and two police officers who got trapped when they tried to rescue the group, Kentucky State Police Trooper B.J. Eaton said.
There was no communication between the stranded cavers and the more than 150 emergency personnel at the scene. Authorities didn't know exactly where the missing cavers were underground, and the only light the group had came from headlamps they wore.
The cavers, accompanied by a couple of experienced guides, were unaware of the rising waters threatening to block the cave's entrance. Heavy rains hit the area hours after the group ventured inside, said David Foster, executive director of the American Cave Museum at Horse Cave.
The storm hit earlier than expected, so Foster and a couple of others decided to find the group and bring them back out, he said.
"It was pretty scary," he said in an interview. "We felt like if we waited for them to just come out on their own, the flood might be too intense and they might be trapped there."
Foster said his rescue team ventured about a mile into the cave, where they found the group in a "high and dry" area.
With only one way in and out of the cave, they needed to reach the group before a wall of water might shut off the escape route.
"The whole time we're back there in the cave, we're thinking, 'Gosh, I hope the water hasn't closed us off,'" Foster said. "That's the scary thought as you're going deeper into the cave."
The final stretch was the most precarious, when they had to wade and swim through high water, Foster said.
At one point, a canyon filled with water, and the group used an escape route built for such emergencies, he said.
"That was a lifesaver today," he said.
They held onto the rope during the final stretch to make their way through the water.
"When they came out of the cave, they were neck-deep in water," Hart County Emergency Management Director Kerry McDaniel said.
The cave is in south-central Kentucky's karst region, where many of state's longest and deepest caves run underground.
The Clemson students had planned a five-hour trip exploring the cave's geology when torrential rains hit the region after they entered, McDaniel said. The group went into the cave about 10 a.m. CDT Thursday and emerged about 4:30 p.m. They were checked for hypothermia but declined further medical attention, McDaniel said.
Four other people were able to escape earlier, Horse Cave Fire Chief Donnie Parker said. He didn't have details about how they got out.
Two Horse Cave police officers who became trapped had entered the cave about 3 p.m. in an effort to make contact with the stranded group, authorities said. They were met by the four people who had managed to escape.
"We looked at this from the beginning and hoped it was a search rather than a recovery operation," McDaniel said.
The attraction's website offers to take visitors through one of Kentucky's largest caves and says two subterranean rivers flow more than 100 feet below ground. In addition to public guided tours and longer adventure tours, a zip line and rappelling are also offered.
Schreiner reported from Louisville, Kentucky. Beth Campbell in Louisville contributed to this report.