Four Die In Cave
Thursday, 18 August 2005 - MICHAEL RIGERT - Daily Herald
Hands on their heads, fleeting glimmers of hope, holding back tears -- the expressions and body language of a group of friends of four missing Utah County adventurers said it all.
They consoled one another until word came and fears were realized -- all four had died inside the Provo haunt known as the "Cave of Death."
What was supposed to be a couple of hours of fun spelunking at the little-known cave in Y Mountain turned to tragedy Thursday when the bodies of Scott K. McDonald, 28, of Provo; J. Blake Donner, 24, of Springville; Jennifer Lynn Galbraith, 21, of Pleasant Grove; and Ariel Singer, 18, of Orem, were found in a water-filled tunnel inside the cave.
Those familiar with the hidden cave say they had to squeeze through a small opening, and then crawl on hands and knees through a shallow pool of frigid water. The main tunnel then forks and near the end of the left fork is a 2-foot diameter "puddle" that's actually a portal to the submerged tunnel below.
The person then crouches in 4 feet of water surrounded by rock and follows the rope to a small 11-foot long, 6-foot high cavern at the opposite end.
According to Steven Hundley, a friend of the victims, the group squeezed through the mouth of the cave located about 400 yards south and west of the "Y" at 3 a.m.
But after the short crawl and the trip down the left fork, Joseph Ferguson, 26 of Reno, Nev., had had enough. He decided not to go into the portal filled with water, the reason the group had come.
Provo police spokesman Sgt. Mark Troxel said Ferguson felt a tug at a guide rope secured by previous visitors, the signal that the other four had safely made it through the tunnel to the cavern beyond. It was the last contact he had with the others.
After about 45 minutes, Ferguson became concerned when his friends didn't emerge from the cave. He then called friends familiar with the cave, including Hundley, and asked them what to do.
"Joe was like, 'Are they messing with me?' " Hundley said.
Other friends said 45 minutes was too long to be down there.
At that point Ferguson got scared and called police.
Provo search and rescue, police and fire personnel were on the scene almost immediately, but crews were cautious because of the extremely dangerous nature of the cave with its confined spaces and the underwater tunnel.
"This young man (Ferguson) felt they didn't intend to be in there very long," said Provo police spokeswoman Karen Mayne.
At approximately 9:45 a.m., it was announced that a body of one of the women had been recovered near the entrance of the water-filled tunnel.
Before entering the water and making their way to the cavern at the back of the cave, emergency workers piped in oxygen in the chance that the other were still alive but trapped inside. They also used a sump pump to drain the water level about 2 feet.
It was at that point that divers entered the underwater tunnel and came upon a heart-wrenching discovery.
"They found three young people," Mayne said. "They were all dead."
"That sucks," said an emotionally distraught Hundley when he learned the fate of all four friends. "It's horrible."
He said one or two of the friends had been in the cave previously at which time one of the women was overwhelmed by the freezing temperatures of the water and suffered hypothermia-like symptoms.
"We had to take her home, change her clothes and get her warmed up," he said.
Lt. Dave Bennett, a member of Utah County Search and Rescue, said the three victims found by divers inside the underwater tunnel "appeared to be coming out" from where their bodies were located. It's unclear at this point, Bennett said, but the body of the first victim may have been blocking the way out for the other three.
"They might have drowned because they couldn't get past her," he said.
Bennett said reports circulated that the rope, secured on both ends of the underwater feature in the cave, had broken were false.
"We found it connected at both ends," he said. "It was a solid piece of rope."
The two men, Bennett said, were wearing shorts and sandals and the two women were clad in tops, shorts and sandals. Two flashlights, apparently the only equipment the group brought with them, were found in the water, one floating and one submerged. Lit and unlit candles were scattered around the cave to provide lighting.
Mayne said the bodies were transported late Thursday morning to a Provo mortuary in order for families of the victims to accurately identify their loved ones.
She said the bodies would then be taken to the state medical examiner's office for autopsies.
Located in the foothills just north and east of the Seven Peaks Water Park, the cave apparently had become a hot spot in recent months among local youth and thrill seekers.
Brent Whitaker, a UVSC student living in Orem, said locals have known about the "Cave of Death" for years, but stopped visiting it until about two years ago.
"That was when talk about the cave started again and people started going up there," said the Midway native, who had met three of the victims through the local music scene. He and four friends went to the cave for the first time in May, and just like Ferguson did Wednesday morning, one friend grew weary and stayed behind.
"It is crazy to think about how similar it was," he said. Whitaker and a few friends visited the now-sealed cave Thursday night.
Brian Lamprey, a Provo resident who's also been inside the cave and others in the area, said the risk level of the cavern isn't too difficult until you enter the underwater tunnel.
He said at first the water is clear, but as silt and dirt are churned up, it quickly becomes murky and visibility is nil.
"It's easy to get disoriented," he said. "People freak out when under the water."
Lamprey should know. The first time he explored the cave about a month ago, he almost became lost exiting the water tunnel. He said there's an additional 6-foot length that goes in the opposite direction of the cavern. He passed the small overhead 2-foot diameter opening to get out.
"I got disoriented and lost the rope," he said.
Rather than panicking, he felt his way back and was able to find his way out.
Jared Lescoe, a BYU student from Logan, also has been in the treacherous cave.
"I knew someone was going to get hurt eventually," he said. "I always thought it would be the entrance that would collapse."
Wes Cord, a resident who grew up in the area, said though he'd never been to the specific cave in Y Mountain, in their teens he and friends would explore a similar cave about a quarter of a mile away.
"Yeah, it was pretty dangerous for inexperienced people," he said. "You could get stuck in it if you weren't accustomed to it."
Troxel, who's been a member of the Provo Mountain Rescue team for 20 years, said any cave with underwater sections dramatically increases the risk to those entering it.
"I would consider it the highest danger," he said. "I would be very concerned about it."
Before Thursday, there were three recorded cave deaths in Utah. They were:
In the early 1990s, a Scout leader not wearing a helmet died after falling on his head in Logan Cave.
Late in 2002, a woman died from a fall of more than 240 feet in Bloomington Cave near St. George.
In 2003, a man drowned in the warm spring of Beware Cave near Gandy in Millard County.
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A1.
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