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Rescuers work through the night to pull injured man from cave

WEYBRIDGE — Local and statewide rescue organizations went into the proverbial belly of the beast — a Weybridge cave — during a 12-hour operation to save a man who had injured himself during a fall while doing some underground climbing with a companion on Tuesday night, Aug. 6.
It was a complicated rescue from a cave off Cave Road, led by Weybridge Fire Chief Bill Sinks, who marshaled more than 50 people to help out — including members of the Vermont Cavers’ Association.
The Weybridge Fire Department was toned to the scene at around 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening. Sinks was first to arrive on the scene and learned the details: Two men had entered the cave to do some free climbing (without ropes), and one of them had fallen around 12 feet down a vertical drop, injuring his head in the process. The other climber ran to get help.
Sinks judged the injured man was trapped around 200 feet inside the cave, which features some twists, turns, narrow openings and a series of vertical drops. He quickly called Middlebury Technical Rescue and Middlebury Heavy Rescue to the scene to put together a plan. When it became clear that more expertise was needed, he contacted the Vermont Cavers’ Association, which has maps of many of the state’s caves, as well as an emergency helicopter from Albany, N.Y.
The cavers — including Steve Hazelton, treasurer of the association — arrived with special equipment and a good, detailed map of the Weybridge cave.
“This was a difficult (cave), because there are at least three narrow places,” he said. “And when you have to bring a patient out, that totally changes their size and flexibility.”
It was a problem that the rescuers had to solve with the aid of some air chisels, which presented another challenge: How to keep the air chisels functioning when a conventional air compressor did not have enough hose to feed the tools?
Enter some good old Yankee ingenuity and firefighter resourcefulness. Sinks said the crew tapped into the fire department’s portable air bottles (used by firefighters to breathe in burning buildings) to power the air chisels.
“We went through 35 air bottles to get the openings as wide as we needed,” Sinks said. “We felt it was a very successful cave modification.”
Some of the cavers went in and reached the injured man, a 26-year-old Addison County resident whose name was not released by press time. They strapped him to a special board in case he had a spinal injury and began the arduous process of navigating him up and through openings and chambers in the cave. Rescuers had to be very delicate, making sure not to manipulate the man’s feet for fear of aggravating any lower body injury he might have sustained. The cavers also put to use some special, old-school tools of the trade: An indoor-outdoor thermometer that they put in the injured man’s armpit to constantly monitor his core temperature (against hypothermia); and old military phones with wires to ensure underground communication.
Meanwhile, Sinks made the decision to dismiss the helicopter because the man’s injuries did not appear life threatening and because approaching fog risked grounding the craft for a prolonged period of time.
Rescuers emerged from the cave with the injured man at around 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday — 12 hours after the incident was reported. The Middlebury Volunteer Ambulance Association whisked the man away. The extent of his injuries was not known at press time.
“He was definitely in a lot of pain,” Sinks said, adding he was pleased with the rescue effort.
It’s an incident that Sinks believes should provide a cautionary tale for cavers. He and Hazelton agreed the climbers should have been using ropes.
“One of the problems we run into is rock climbers who think they can apply above-ground (climbing) techniques” to caving, Hazelton said. But the underground rocks are frequently damp and muddy, preventing people from getting a solid grip.
Fortunately, caving accidents are few and far between in Vermont, according to Hazelton, who has been a caver for more than 30 years. The Vermont Cavers’ Association is not a rescue group, but assists emergency agencies when called upon. Hazelton said the group is called to a cave-related rescue about once every five years.
“We don’t get them too often,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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