Calamity In Pennsylvania's Laurel Caverns
• by John David Fawcett •
• and Ron Gizzo •
Covered with mud and soaked from belly-crawls through several streams, we were way up in the breakdown above Petit Falls exploring the north-east branch of the cave before continuing our journey farther into the bowels of the cave. Located just outside of Uniontown, Laurel Caverns is the largest cave in Pennsylvania at 464 feet deep, and has about 2.5 miles of passages.
We squirmed around in the mud and dirt and explored every lead we could find but each one quickly pinched out so we regrouped and started back to the "Ballroom". Unfortunately, Brian inexplicably became very nauseous. We spent a good bit of time sitting around waiting for him to recover while at the same time, unknown to us, Dale Ibberson was lying in pain just a short distance away.
At about 12:30 p.m. on our way up to the breakdown we had passed two surveyors, Dale Ibberson and Jay Reich of the York Grotto, who were preparing to do a resurvey of the section above Petit Falls. They had just inspected the section of cave they were going to resurvey and were in the process of setting a station when Ibberson stepped back down to his former position. What he thought was a one foot high step instead turned out to be a three foot drop. Turning sideways as he fell, Ibberson came down hard on a rock and fractured his hip. In great pain and unable to move, he realized that an emergency evacuation would be necessary.
Reich knew we were up in the breakdown and that we would have to come back their way since there is no other way out of the cave. When we finally showed up he told us what had happened and asked us to stay with Ibberson. Leaving us with instructions to keep Ibberson warm and conscious, Reich raced to the surface where he notified Laurel Cavern staff member John "Spiffy" Chenger. Chenger immediately placed a telephone call to Patty Kennedy, a wilderness EMT and ER-NCRC member who initiated a limited call-out to local cavers. Chenger then gathered a small team to carry in a Ferno-Washington litter, an Initial Response Team kit, and a field telephone.
In the meantime, we talked to Ibberson who, in addition to being in quite a bit of pain, was also diabetic. We made sure he ate the cookies that Reich had left and did what we could to comfort him as we waited and waited, becoming colder with each passing minute. The temperature inside the cave is 52° F year around but, now that we were soaked and inactive, it felt like we were about to freeze to death. Ibberson's cookies were starting to look pretty good by the time the so-called rescue team finally arrived. The rescue team consisted of two people, Chenger and an anonymous tunnel rat. Breaking out the rescue gear, Chenger assigned Mike the ever-so-important job of manning the field telephone, the sole responsibility appearing to be saying "Cave to surface" about a thousand times.
While Mike maintained contact with the surface, Chenger assessed Ibberson's condition and decided to package him on the litter. Ron, who has no EMT training, told Chenger that he thought Ibberson's hip was broken and that we shouldn't move him until the rest of the team arrived, to which Chenger replied "It's probably just bruised." After what seemed like another two hours, the rest of the rescue team consisting of Douglas Moore from West Virginia and a few more tunnel rats who appeared to be about ten years old finally arrived. They had a hundred and one different ways of securing Ibberson and spent the next hour torturing the poor guy by tying and untying him to the litter. Several times they even tied the straps right across his broken hip. During this time a Paramedic showed up and asked about Ibbersons' injuries. After Moore told him that we were about to begin the evacuation, the Paramedic said he would check Ibberson when we got him to the "Ballroom" and disappeared. We never saw him again.
They eventually managed to tie him in without causing too much additional pain and we finally began the evacuation. We were as careful as possible but we still beat the hell out of the poor guy dragging him through the cave. Chenger insisted on moving the litter in a strange, confusing manner which seemed to take twice as long as necessary. It was hard work maneuvering through the twisting passages and in some places the litter barely fit. Eventually we managed to get Ibberson to the surface, with over 90% of the difficult work hauling the litter out of the cave done not by the rescue team, but by us.
All the time that we were down in the cave we were told that the fire department and cave rescue teams were being called in and in fact, upon arriving at the scene, Moore had requested twelve additonal people, including two medics and medical gear be sent in to assist. Except for the vanishing Paramedic, we never did receive any additional help. When we reached the surface we were greeted by more firemen than I have ever seen. Firemen? They moved more like firewood! They were all chewing tobacco and spitting all over the cave, and there wasn't a single one who could have fit his fat, bloated carcass through the cave. As we approached this herd of cretins they attempted to snatch the litter from us, just in time for the local newspaper photographers to snap a few heroic pictures. Moore later estimated that the unwelcome presence of these poseurs added at least thirty minutes to the extrication. One of these sub-human endomorphs even dropped a one pound flashlight onto Ibbersons' head! The State of Pennsylvania ought to be ashamed.
In an article in the Cavers Digest, Jim Kennedy had this to say about the situation: "The cavers, including several caver paramedics, had started the extrication and had everything well under control when things got a little messy. About 60 (!) firemen showed up from several different squads and tried to take over, even attempting to stop the litter so one of them (who is also a newspaper photographer) could take pictures! They even brought in a second litter and more gear. No one is sure who called them out and it is obvious that they were not in communication with anyone actually involved with the operation. All-in-all there was a lack of Incident Command after the operation was underway. There was not even any type of entrance control and some of those firemen may be wandering around in there yet!"
We hadn't helped with this rescue for praise or glory, we had helped simply because it was the right thing to do. Once the "professionals" took over, we were quickly forgotten so we made our way to the lobby area and took a well deserved rest. As we sat there, cold, tired, and hungry and facing a three hour drive home, a fellow came by and was nice enough to give us a soda pop which tasted real good after our ordeal. Unfortunately, Chenger spoiled any feelings of goodwill when he said "You giving them that pop for free?"
You're welcome, Spiffy!