Accident is worst in 11 years
Friday, Aug. 19, 2005 12:18 a.m. MDT - By Jeremy Twitchell - Deseret Morning News
George Frey, Associated Press
An air hose winds down the hill as search and rescue personnel gather at the mouth of a small cave in Provo where four people died on Thursday in a caving accident. Authorities are sealing the cave's entrance.
PROVO — The caving tragedy that claimed four young lives Thursday on "Y" Mountain was the worst cave-related accident in the United States in at least 11 years.
According to figures from the National Speleological Society, a cave preservation organization that has tracked data on caving fatalities since 1994, the worst accident on record for the United States was an incident in Minnesota last year where three cavers suffocated after they built a fire in a cave tunnel.
One veteran member of the Utah County Search and Rescue team, Sgt. Spencer Cannon of the Utah County Sheriff's office, said he hopes what happened Thursday will make other cavers stop and think.
"People like to think this is not something to take seriously," he said, "but any time you're in a confined space, and even more so if there's water, there's danger lurking there. . . . It's just too dangerous to even consider."
Since 1994, an average of 6.4 people have died each year in the United States in cave-related accidents. More than half of those deaths involved cave divers. In Utah, an Eskdale man died last year when he drowned in a cave at Warm Creek Springs, near Delta.
Cannon said the Search and Rescue Team has received a dozen or so calls this year related to caves, but in all those cases, the explorers simply stayed out longer than planned and returned unharmed.
The team conducted three rescues last year, all at the Nutty Putty Cave on the west side of Utah Lake. In each case, explorers had become stuck and were extracted with no serious injuries.
Although those three incidents ended well, the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, which owns the land where Nutty Putty is located, said a private institution would have to lease the land and assume responsibility for safety at the site or it would be sealed.
Gary Bagley, a realty specialist for SITLA, said Thursday that one group has filed a lease application and SITLA is seeking other potential bidders through a competitive process.
"We sent out a lot of notices to any party we though might be interested," Bagley said. "We're being very open with the whole process."
The chance that Nutty Putty Cave could still remain open is welcome news to local caving experts. Spencer Christian, president of the Timpanogos Grotto (the local chapter of the National Speleological Society) said Nutty Putty, with its horizontal layout, is a good cave for beginners.
"If they close Nutty Putty, accidents will go up," Christian said. He explained that most of the caves in Utah County have a more vertical layout and are much more dangerous for inexperienced cavers.
Christian said Timpanogos Grotto welcomes anyone who wants to learn how to properly explore caves. Training classes and guided excursions are available on a regular basis. For more information, go to www.caves.org/grotto/timpgrotto.
"We love new people, and we like to train them how to be safe," Christian said.
Christian is also a cave rescue trainer for the Utah County Search and Rescue Team. Between his group's knowledge and the rescue team's experience, rescuers are aware of many of the caves in the area. But the sheer number of caves makes it impossible for anyone to know about them all, as rescuers found out Thursday.
"We were unaware of this cave," Provo Police Lt. Scott Finch said.
Cannon said there were some members of the rescue team who are 30-year veterans and had never heard of the cave involved in Thursday's fatalities.
"There are quite a few caves around, and some are more well-known than others," Cannon said. "This is one of the lesser-known ones."
Brandon Christiansen, who lives in the area near the cave, said he was exploring and discovered the cave about a month ago. He said the entrance was well hidden, and he had to get up close to see what it was.
He said he contemplated going in, but changed his mind when his mother called his cell phone and asked if he was coming to dinner. Now, after Thursday's accident, he won't be able to.
Within hours of Thursday's tragedy, Provo city workers were already sealing the cave's entrance.
Cannon said he was not surprised by the quick decision to seal the cave, as the sudden notoriety it achieved would likely be an irresistible call to other cavers.
"It's a fairly small area," he said, "but it obviously carries a great deal of danger."
Contributing: Sara Israelsen