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NUTTY PUTTY CAVE
IN OUR VIEW: REFLECTIONS ON A TRAGEDY

In Our View: Reflections on Cave Tragedy

Daily HeraldThursday, 18 August 2005 - MICHAEL RIGERT - Daily Herald

Yesterday's tragedy in a cave in Provo's foothills has stunned the local community. Four young people lost their lives, apparently drowned as they struggled to escape a water-filled underground tunnel of rock.

It was a place they should not have been. But it's a place many have gone. The cavern has been a source of excitement and seemingly controllable danger for many who learned of its existence by word of mouth. Like the Nutty Putty cave in the West Desert, it had become a magnet for would-be adventurers, usually young people with a less than fully developed sense of their own mortality.

Unfortunately, real life is not like Kate Winslet in Titanic or Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones. In those fictions, the heroes always get through. The very real danger of this cave -- dubbed the "Cave of Death" -- had somehow gone unnoticed by city officials, even though it was well advertised by any number of young explorers. Some sources say that the cave has been a source of recreation for more than a decade.

Three guys and two girls went looking for a thrill late Wednesday night. Many had gone before them and returned with wide eyes and happy grins after having challenged nature and won. So the five friends weren't too worried. At 3 a.m. Thursday, the little group made their way the few hundred yards up the slope from Seven Peaks Water Park to the cave's mouth, a 2-foot opening that one must enter virtually lying down.

All five entered, but one of the friends, Joseph Ferguson, 26 of Reno, Nev., turned back after 100 feet because something changed his mind. He didn't want to go into an underwater tunnel leading to a tiny cavern with an air pocket. He decided to wait outside.

The others -- 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 -- plunged ahead. They would not return.

Nobody knows exactly what happened. Their bodies were all found in a water-filled tube, heading outward as though on their way back to safety. Whether the problem was lack of air, ultra-cold water or a hang-up of some kind, we'll never know for sure. What we do know is that this tragedy should not have happened. The most frustrating pain is that it was so unnecessary.

The first responsibility for one's safety lies with the individual, and a cavalier attitude toward personal danger can only lead to sorrow. This little adventure was unwise. Thrill-seeking is a normal part of being young, but there ought to be some lines a person won't cross. This cave goes way beyond the Nutty Putty experience, which mainly amounts to a little claustrophobia and somebody getting stuck now and then.

The "Cave of Death" has all those elements, but it adds water to the mix. An icy underwater swim, through narrow passages, in the blackness of a cave, at 3 a.m. -- go figure. It is reminiscent of the tragic deaths of Ashton and Byron Hobbs, who attempted to swim with scuba gear through a 1,200-foot-long, 8-foot-diameter inverted siphon on the Murdock Canal in 2003.

A Provo city crew cemented the cave opening on Thursday afternoon. It is unfortunate that this had not been done sooner, though officials say they didn't know about the cave until recently. While the city has long been aware of any number of foothill caverns (30 years ago, another such cave, a dry and relatively harmless one, was cemented shut above Oak Hills), it's simply not reasonable to ask the city to scour every inch of mountainside for anything that might pose a danger to somebody. Various caverns and old mine shafts are abundant and well known all along the Wasatch Front and in local canyons, and the dangers they pose are, to some extent, just part of living here.

It's silly to attempt to remove all danger from life, nor is it the proper role of local government, generally speaking, to make sure nobody ever gets hurt within the city limits. We are an open, free society, and that means people are entitled to make their own judgments -- and mistakes.

Government needs to step in when the public danger is great enough, and it seems clear that the "Cave of Death" meets that criterion -- not for local 20-somethings, perhaps, but certainly for younger kids with even worse judgment.

Pushing the limits is part of being human. The spirit of adventure has moved civilization forward at an astonishing rate, from Columbus to the Mormon pioneers, from Sir Edmund Hillary to Neil Armstrong. The young people who died Thursday share that spirit in a small way. Though their vision was limited to the thrill of the moment, it is not dishonorable for being so.

We grieve for them, and for their families.

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A5.

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