Way up here, above ground, it had been a couple of chilly and wet days when the call came in. Most Arkies would spend the weekend partying with friends and family--or maybe enjoy a quiet evening at home watching the ball drop. But there was no party for a few special others. There was darkness, mud, crawling, and a rescue to be completed:
The call for help went out the night of Dec. 30. A group of Texas cavers had gone underground near Harrison, Ark., and one of them had some sort of accident and was injured. A member of the rescue party told us she got the call around 10:30 p.m. and immediately set out to join her companions. It was a nearly three-hour trip for her to get there.
Multiple teams of rescuers entered the cave and merged into one combined force. The lady we spoke with said she has 300 hours of National Cave Rescue Commission training, and it came in handy during this incident. These rescues are rare, but when they happen, the first step is getting logistics right. (Amateurs think strategy, generals think logistics.)
Rescue crews need to know cave details, vertical drops, wetness, depth, etc. What's the chain of command? What needs to be packed? These are all figured out before anyone else sets foot in the cave.
"You always want to be over-prepared," our friend said.
Caving is always going to be out of the question for some of us because of fears of tight spaces, but that's not a factor for these folks. For them, the rescue comes with a sense of duty. They put all their efforts into figuring out how to best accomplish the objective. In this particular case, the objective was to 1. get to an injured caver, 2. take care of immediate medical needs, and 3. get her out. Our captain at Officers Basic Course couldn't have been more martial in his thinking.
But aside from all the technical details that go into these rescues, there's also a human element to consider. From the time the mission started in earnest, it took four hours to reach the injured caver. Our friend said as crews got closer to the injured woman, some uncertainty set in. They didn't know her mental state after being injured and under ground for 12-plus hours. Once they started to move her, rescuers made sure to keep morale high amid the muck and darkness, asking about her life and making jokes.
"She did an excellent job keeping focused and dedicated to getting out quickly. Her fitness and mindset helped a lot," one of the rescuers said.
What was expected to be a multi-day rescue ended up being completed in 18 hours. On New Year's Eve, everyone emerged safe and sound. Apparently the entire team had a great dynamic and worked well together. We say "apparently" because you couldn't poke us down that cave with a sharp stick. It takes a special type of person to do this kind of work.
Although cave rescues are rare around here, there is a real danger for cavers and rescuers. The No. 1 danger? Letting adrenaline and the urge to help get in the way of personal safety:
"You don't want to create another patient extraction or injury issue by being reckless. Eat, drink, don't over-exert." That's good advice.
If water is present, hypothermia is added to the list of risks for cavers. Our caver said she actually likes wet caves and owns several wetsuits. When she's not on rescue missions like the one earlier this week, she spends time mapping caves and counting bats. Another job that she can have.
If you're like us, you might wonder how word of an injury gets spread from several hours underground. There's no cell reception down there, so forget text messages. Our rescuer friend said "runners" are sent topside, and they'll often have to drive to get a cell signal to call for help. Once rescuers are in the cave, they can use flagging tape to mark their way back.
Underground rescues are difficult and taxing, both emotionally and physically. To the people who answered the call for help while the rest of us blissfully rang in the new year, thank you. Like nurses, teachers and priests, consider cave lifeguard yet another job that takes a special sorta someone . . . .
Editorial on 01/05/2019
Print Headline: Answering the call