Having been underground in the morning, on a trip to The Crevasse, it turned out to be a challenging day. Our group had emerged from OFD Top Entrance at around 5.30pm that day. We know that the South Wales club house is frequently crowded, but on this occasion, it seemed more so than usual and there was Vince Alkins, the West Brecon CRG Secretary, waiting to inform us of an injured girl in the cave.
The first rescue party was already with her , and as far as rescue HQ were aware , doctors were seeing to her injury, she was being 'bagged and made ready for shipping' as she had a back injury and was unable to walk out .
"Go and have something to eat, we'll probably need you at midnight", was the instruction from the rescue coordinators. Put a telephone call into the missus at home. "I need an extension on my pass" Pass granted. .
That being the case we changed out of our muddy caving kit into civilian clothes and went back to Godre Pentre. Back at the cottage, most people were in the garden at the anniversary party, and came over to us looking for the latest news from below. We didn't know much more than them, but gave a well embellished account of what we had been told by Vince thus far.
We couldn't sup much beer as we were due to go underground later, but the Cottage party was in full flow, perhaps a bit subdued. Hot cuts from the sheep were offered and accepted. Around 9pm people were sloping off quietly to put their heads down for a few hours.
I was woken at 11.30pm from a deep sleep and momentarily was unaware what was going on. Then it dawned on me. Right. Sort out some kit. No light, but the cave rescue group hold a supply for this sort of eventuality? 'Who needs a lift'? Off we go and upon arrival at the S. Wales HQ rescue base, the place was lit up like a Christmas tree. Scores of people running around, was I the only one who was not sure what to do or where to go? Get on with it, start changing, hearing snippets of information, generally building up a picture of how far the rescue has moved on. Decide wet or dry kit?
"You will help with the 90 foot haul out of the main streamway, and be based initially at the top of the pitch." Well that's decided then. Dry kit it is, no point in sweating away in a wet suit for hours is there? A nice fresh lamp and safety belt was available from the rescue store.
12.30am we are called together as a group and given a briefing. "Get yourselves to the 90 foot pitch above the streamway, and be prepared to haul on ropes to pull the patient up. From there you will be moving the patient out of the cave". Sounds straightforward, lets get on with it.
A crack team, assembled. There are 12 of us in the Croydon group. Croydon's finest, a large range of ages and experiences. Did I get a whiff of alcohol? No liniment! Surely not! A brisk walk up the hill. A Landrover was stationed at the Top Entrance and the Hey Phone was earthed here.
We spoke with the guys in the Landover. There was a breakdown in the communications between the patient and the surface. Some doubt as to where exactly the rescue team had progressed to so far.
In we go. No need to turn lights on, already on because of the walk up the hill. Standard 'trade route' into OFD top: Brickyard, Gnome, Wedding Cake, Corkscrew, Salubrious.
We were led to a cramped passage overlooking the streamway. Twelve bodies in the passage, all looking for news from below. Not much room to shift around so I retired back from the pitch to find a chamber where a few others had done the same. It was 90 foot down to the streamway. Nothing for it but to wait for the casualty to arrive at the bottom of the pitch. And wait…. and wait.
After an hour the word came through. "The casualty has not progressed as far along the streamway as our intelligence led us to believe." We were then asked to make our way down to the streamway (traditional route via Maypole Inlet). We duly set off. (It was at this point I began to wish I had put on the wetsuit). Upon arriving at the streamway we set off downstream, expecting at any moment, just around the corner, we would see (or at least hear) the rescue party with casualty making good progress. Caving for the next 20 minutes consisted of streamway walking, potholes and traversing around the sides to keep dry. A few climbs, some low sections, surely the casualty will be seen any time now! At long last we saw the lights of the rescue party (rather we heard them first). Actually by then we were at the Great Oxbow, and for a while were out of the water.
The Croydon crew arrived in dribs and drabs, and reported to Jules Carter of the WBCRT who was leading the rescue team at that point. We initially watched how they worked together, and gradually joined in. I spoke to the doctor. He had been underground for 15 hours at this point! Jules was a good leader.
At times like this, working with a group of mixed ability, firm (and loud) leadership is needed. "Speed up guys / don't let the casualty bend / move forward / quickly guys / speak to the casualty / keep her out of the water / feed her the jelly babies"
The rescue passed in this 'traditional' fashion for many hours. A wet suit would have been a comfort as there were long periods of partial immersion, and many deep potholes - with total immersion for the clumsy. (Jules passed around simple WBCRT balaclavas for those who looked like they needed the extra warmth)
Hours passed. Lifting, dragging, supporting, waiting. Lots of waiting, for people to position themselves for the next lift or handover. The original rescue team had long since departed for the surface. It was mostly Croydon now, who were in this part of the rescue. Eventually we arrived with the casualty at the foot of the 90 foot pitch.
The word passed along our group that there was a fresh team arriving at the head of the pitch (where we had waited some 10 hours previously). Our work was done. We were relieved of responsibility for the casualty, and started to make our way out.
Back up Maypole Inlet, (which by now had a handy rope rigged up) Corkscrew Climb, where we met fresh cavers from Mendip CRG coming in . We briefed them as to the casualty position and state of mind (lucid but in pain when the stretcher was allowed to bend in the middle).
Out into the sunshine, was it really nearly 11am? Down the hill where there were even more people around than the night before. Report to cave rescue HQ , and log out . Memories of great hospitality and general friendliness.
Back to the cottage and a nap. Report back to the missus at home, further extension to my pass agreed. Time for a beer.
(Lizzy was flown to hospital by air ambulance 28 hours after her accident, and just over 24 hours after the call out. She recovered from a single compression fracture to the spine. The rescue involved five teams of 116 cavers underground.)