Out for some fun spelunking, he now was trapped. Was this the end for him?
- Posted on Jul 29, 2014
They didn’t think I could hear them but I could. Every word.
“He’s dead weight,” one voice said. “Exhausted, oxygen deprived, dehydrated. He’s got nothing left.”
“I don’t know how we’ll get him out before the rain comes,” another man replied. “God help him if that tunnel floods....”
The cold cavern walls stung my cheeks. My lips were caked with dirt, dry and cracked. My empty stomach growled. I strained every muscle in my body, twisted left and right, exhaled every cubic inch of air that I could. It made no difference.
I was far beneath the surface of Maquoketa Caves State Park. The words of the rescue workers in another chamber of the cavern echoed loud and clear. If the tunnel floods...
“Hey, Logan!” This voice was nearer. A female firefighter, one of the only rescuers small enough to squeeze in close to me. “You’re going to be alone for a little bit while we switch shifts. You just take it easy. Okay?”
I lifted my head off the ground and craned my neck toward her. “Yeah, okay,” I said weakly. The firefighter’s flashlight disappeared around the bend and darkness poured into the shaft the way rainwater would, if the forecast held.
These tunnels had been formed by the runoff from centuries of storms. What did drowning feel like? I imagined a steady stream trickling into the tunnel, rising around my face, filling my mouth and nose, flooding my lungs.
This was not the day I had thought I’d die. I’d just finished my sophomore year at Wheaton College, and my friends and I had decided that a spelunking trip would be the perfect way to celebrate.
I knew these caves; I’d explored nearly all of them with my father, starting when I was 10 years old. I never dreamed I’d be in any danger.
Why hadn’t I stayed at camp with the rest of the group? I could be setting up the tent, eating s’mores. But my friend Emma and I wanted to explore a real belly-crawler: Wye Cave.
You enter through a sinkhole at the bottom of a valley and descend straight down to a steep boulder slope strewn with wood and leaves swept there by past storms. At the bottom is a tight pinch, about a foot high. You squeeze through, then the cave branches off into several smaller tunnels.
Emma was the first to get stuck. Two other cavers heard our shouts and sent help. It took five hours for firefighters to get her free. As we followed the rescuers out, snaking through the shaft, I got stuck myself.
I’m over six feet tall, and an outcropping I’d tried to squeeze under trapped my chest against the tunnel wall. “You’re okay, bud,” one of them told me, examining the surrounding rock with his flashlight. “We’ll lead her out and come back for you. Ten minutes, tops.”
I’d believed it at the time. They’ll get me out, ten minutes, tops. When they returned, they tried everything–harnesses and pulleys and ropes, chisels and drills–careful to avoid triggering a collapse. But all the twisting and jostling had moved me less than a foot.
In fact, I was wedged even tighter, my hips pegged against the limestone. First 10 minutes, then an hour, another hour. Now it had been 20, nearly a day in the dark underground.
I wiggled my fingers, the only part of my body I could move freely. I couldn’t feel anything below my knees–just pins and needles. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply from the oxygen mask the rescue workers had set up for me.
I thought of my parents, waiting for me at the command center on the surface. They were praying, I knew. Losing their son couldn’t be God’s plan. But what if it was?
A memory flashed before my eyes. The morning before I left for the caves. I’d spent it deep-cleaning my bedroom. Washing my laundry, scrubbing the hardwood floors, organizing my drawers. I browsed the birthday and Christmas cards I’d collected over the years.
I even found some of my old toys in the back of my closet and gave them to my three youngest brothers. I laughed at how excited they were about my yo-yos and Matchbox cars.
Somewhere deep down, had I known that I wasn’t coming back from this trip? Had that been God’s way of letting me get my affairs in order?
“Lord, let me free!” I shouted out into the darkness. I gave it my all, what little I had left. Pain shot through my body. I arched my back, twisted my arms and flailed my senseless legs. I clawed at the smooth stone until my fingers felt raw, and screamed like a madman.
Didn’t budge an inch. Too weak. My muscles withered.
It had gotten colder. The limestone walls wept with condensation. The rain would be coming soon–no rescue team could stop it. This really is it. I’m 20 years old. This is the way I go.
I would never see my family again. Never finish college or buy my first car, fall in love and get married. I pressed my face against the damp stone and sobbed.
God, I don’t have anything left, I prayed one last time. If there was any chance that I could free myself, it’s gone. I need you now.
I braced my hands against the rock wall and pushed. No strength at all. But cool air whooshed in around me. Like the rock itself had exhaled a breath. The pressure pinning my hips lifted.
I shifted my hips. This time, my muscles didn’t burn. My body didn’t struggle against the stone. Instead, it slipped around the crags, like water through a channel. I could hardly feel my body moving, but every part went exactly where it needed to go, with precisely the right amount of force.
I’d imagined how my body needed to move dozens of times–now every motion was masterfully orchestrated and carried out, with a sudden forceful jolt. Was someone pushing me from behind?
I flopped out onto the ledge and collapsed like a broken marionette. I was free.
My body buzzed, the blood rushing back into my extremities. I looked behind me. No one there to have pushed me. I was quaking. Exhausted and sore. Someone had left a bottle of water and I guzzled it down. Ahead, beams of light danced around the dark cavern, the new shift of rescuers on their way.
Strong arms gripped me and helped me stand. Jubilant voices echoed off the cavern walls. “He’s okay! He’s free! Call command. We’re bringing him up now.”
I squinted against the bright afternoon sun. The rain had held off. The clouds were moving away. Dozens of rescue workers surrounded the mouth of the cave, cheering. My parents ran up to me, tears in their eyes. EMTs lifted me onto a stretcher and into the back of an ambulance.
It had taken all of their efforts to keep me safe, to keep me alive while I struggled down in the depths. But only a stronger push could set me free.
Read Logan's mom's account of this story!
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