Crawl Space

You're trapped underground with an inch of air to breathe? Relax. Buddy Lane is on the way.

Hello darkness: Buddy Lane navigates Tennessee's Mystery Cave.     Photo: Jim Herrington

FOR 18 HOURS, David Gant bobbed in the blackness, his head pressed against a wrinkle in the limestone ceiling. His scuba tank was out of air, his headlamp out of juice. The oxygen in his tiny crevice was thinning dangerously. He was growing dizzy, on the brink of unconsciousness.

Gant was a 31-year-old Alabama logger who'd dabbled in scuba diving but had no experience with caves. Late the previous night, August 15, 1992, he'd gone spearfishing with a friend in the mouth of a flooded cave on the edge of Nickajack Lake, not far from Chattanooga, Tennessee. The fenced site warned trespassers of $25,000 fines, but local legends of 200-pound catfish—reputedly fattened on a food chain enriched by guano droppings from resident gray bats—were too tantalizing for the two friends.

At some point, one of the spearfishermen stirred up silt and the entrance clouded to "zero viz." Panicked, Gant's friend swam out of the murk and sought help. Gant unwittingly swam into the cave, bumping his tank along the ceiling until, several thousand feet in, he found a cavity. Exhausted and scared, he grabbed on to a stalactite and started treading water.

By the time cave-rescue specialist Buddy Lane arrived on the scene the following day, he recalls, the local incident commander had declared the operation a "recovery." In his judgment, it was inconceivable that Gant was still alive. Open-water divers had probed the initial cave passages, and now authorities were dragging the depths for the victim's body. Nearly a hundred people, including distraught members of Gant's family and a welter of TV reporters, were gathered around the site. It was a deathwatch.

Lane strongly advised the incident commander that it was premature to regard Gant as a corpse. The captain of Tennessee's all-volunteer Hamilton County Cave Rescue Unit and perhaps the nation's preeminent subterranean rescuer, Lane had seen too many situations like this. His team was the first—and for years, the only—true cave-rescue unit in the country. Over the past 18 years, this well-traveled speleologist had spearheaded or participated in some 150 underground extractions, including the longest, deepest, and most technically trying cave rescue ever undertaken, the nationally reported evacuation of an injured explorer from New Mexico's Lechuguilla Cave in 1991. Lane approached the crisis at Nickajack with coolheaded precision. Earlier that day, he'd gotten hold of an old map, surveyed by the Tennessee Valley Authority before Nickajack Lake was created in 1969. The map's vertical profiles convinced Lane there was a chance the cave had air pockets where Gant could still be breathing. "I thought of myself there, all alone while everyone outside was declaring me dead," Lane recalled.

Lane's next step was to contact a state emergency official who, in turn, persuaded TVA to do something extraordinary: open the floodgates of Nickajack Dam to bring down the level of the 30-mile-long lake. The utility authority had never done anything like this before; it was a quarter-million-dollar squandering of reservoir water earmarked for hydroelectric power. Yet opening up the dam, Lane felt, was the only chance to turn a recovery into a rescue.

Once the waters began to recede, Lane was itching to search the cave. Although no one among the emergency crew at Nickajack had advanced underwater cave rescue experience and Lane was eminently capable of making the dive, he was told to remain on standby. Lane eventually persuaded the incident commander to let his unit explore a few of the cave's newly dry side passages; then he and his team lieutenant, an impressively mustachioed park service cop named Dennis Curry, put on float vests and slipped into the lake.

The two rescuers finned their way 2,000 yards in, to the point where they had but a few inches of airspace. With waning optimism, Lane swirled his searchlight over the far reaches of Nickajack Cave, and crept ahead.

IT'S NO COINCIDENCE that the nation's foremost cave rescue team is based in Chattanooga. The Civil War city, set in the hard limestone crotch where Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia wedge together, is one of the leading karst regions of the world. Some 8,000 caverns are known to exist within an hour and a half's drive of Chattanooga—and it's anyone's guess how many are yet to be discovered.

A native Chattanoogan, Lane went on his first caving trip when he was 15. "I knew immediately it was my calling," he says. Now 47, he is a large, gangling man with thinning dark hair and a wry grin that lingers on his face as if there's a punch line coming. He runs a steel-fabrication company, which has afforded him the financial freedom to range widely over the planet, "sport pitting" wherever the caving's good—Alaska, Switzerland, Belize, Honduras. He has a prosthetic left eye, the result of a brutal facial injury he sustained while caving in Tennessee in 1975. His various scrapes and close calls have convinced him that, in the end, "cavers have to look after our own; no one else is going to come after us when we get in a jam."

Lane participated in his first cave rescue in 1973, and he was instantly hooked on its gritty intensity. Cave rescues, he learned, are laborious affairs requiring, among other things, extensive rock-climbing skills, intricate belays, and specialized litters. Communications are difficult at best, since ordinary radio and cell-phone signals don't travel far through rock. Rescuers often face the tricky task of squeezing the injured person through constrictions no wider than a man's shoulders, or hauling the victim up through gelid waterfalls. Every piece of equipment that might be needed must be hauled underground.

During big, complicated rescues, Lane typically spends most of his time aboveground, choreographing the efforts of law enforcement and emergency response crews. He is known as a quiet, analytical field general whose mobile command post is a cobalt-blue Chevy Suburban turbo diesel crammed with electronic equipment—two cell phones, two global positioning devices, a public-service radio, a police scanner, several pairs of walkie-talkies, a console-mounted platform for his laptop, and a voice-activated tape recorder to capture distress calls.

Of course, not all cave extractions are rescues. Last July, Lane was called in to retrieve the body of a Tennessee man named Jeffery Wayne Young, who had committed suicide in a pit beneath Gum Springs Mountain. A reputed methamphetamine user, Young was missing for three weeks when his Rottweiler, Spike, was discovered (alive, but emaciated) inside the cave entrance. Lane, along with Curry, finally reached the 60-foot pit where Young had plunged to his death, and began the grim, dangerous business of hauling the corpse out of the hole. "The rock was rotten, and so was he," Curry says. "Even with two body bags, I couldn't get enough Vicks VapoRub in my mustache."

All types of people end up stranded in caves, some of whom Lane politely calls "doofuses." In 1997 Lane and Curry cave-rescued a young, reefer-befogged man wearing cowboy boots who, in a series of remarkable maneuvers, managed to get himself in a crouched position with his head pinned between a wall and a 500-pound boulder. How do cave rescuers feel about risking their necks to save people who, in a strictly Darwinian view of things, may not deserve the effort? "I let God sort that out," Curry says. "My thing is, I don't want them littering up the pristine caves."

Lane puts it another way: "Even doofuses are entitled to a second chance."

DAVID GANT BRIEFLY lost consciousness after 13 hours' floating in Nickajack Cave. Yet in what seemed a near-miraculous stroke of good timing, he was revived by a fresh breeze that came whistling through the passage. Gant clung to his stalactite for another five hours until he experienced a spiritual vision. He was dying—he was quite sure of it. The cave became a white tunnel. A pair of intensely bright lights approached. Everything was clear to Gant as he peered into the blinding luminance. "You're angels, aren't you," he said, "coming to take me away."

"Dude," Curry replied, "we've been called a lot of things, but never angels."

Slowly, the three men breaststroked out of the cave. When they emerged into the late afternoon glow, the deathwatch was still in progress. Hundreds of people along the banks turned in stunned amazement. Waterlogged and weak, Gant stumbled ashore and embraced his family.

Lane and Curry packed up the rescue truck and left. Meanwhile the media at the site flocked around Gant and his relatives; the press would soon herald the event as the "Miracle at Nickajack."

Lane's official report was considerably more understated. "Found victim alive," he wrote. "Everybody happy."

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