13 Hauled To Safety From Cave

Sun Herald

Sunday December 4, 1988

By JANE SOUTHWARD and BRETT THOMAS

THIRTEEN people trapped for nearly 36 hours in a cavern deep below the Nullarbor Plain were hauled to safety just before 11pm last night.

The group-including three Sydneysiders- had been trapped in a cave 80 metres underground after a landslide in a remote part of south-eastern Western Australia.

The survivors-including Liz Wight, Jamie Hurworth and Dirk Spoffels from Sydney-were dragged out the main cave entrance after a huge pile of rubble and boulders had been removed by a team of rescuers, including 10 police and a dozen men from the Main Roads Department and the State Emergency Service.

Inspector David Tree, from Perth police, said: "The rescue squad worked amid extremely dangerous conditions. The rocks were unstable and could have given way at any time. Light drizzle was falling, there was very low cloud cover and it was bitterly cold."

The cave divers had been imprisoned in the chamber when heavy rain and thunderstorms triggered a landslide of mud and boulders on Friday.

The massive rockfall blocked the entrance to the cave near Cocklebiddy, a tiny desert outpost above the Great Australian Bight about 300km from the South Australian border.

The 13 "entombed" cavers, who were making a documentary on underwater diving in the cavern, were able to radio to five members of a ground crew outside the cave. They, in turn, notified authorities.

Caught in the landslide with the three Sydneysiders were seven people from Adelaide, a Gold Coast man, a man from the US and one from Britain.

Among those safe outside the cave were fellow Sydneysiders Andrew Wright, Fiona Wight and Vicki Bunwick.

The trapped team include people aged between their mid-twenties and forties who broke the world distance record in cave diving in 1983 inside the same system of caves.

They were part of an informal group of professional cave divers and camera operators who were retrieving equipment from the cavern after a three-week expedition to make a documentary.

Two of the group scrambled to safety as rocks began to fill the perpendicular shaft to the cavern, where they joined three other members of the ground team.

Police received first news of the trapped people about 2am on Saturday morning (Sydney time) but continuous heavy rain hampered early rescue attempts.

None of the party was reported injured. They were believed to have descended into the cave by rope down a shaft.

Police spokesman Rick Goodfield said the first SES rescue crew on the scene worked in extremely difficult conditions.

"Until the rain stopped and the cave mouth settled, we couldn't do much,"he said.

Peter Rogers, a member of the expedition who returned from the trip early, described the weather which caused the cave-in as a "monumental freak storm".

"It dumped an incredible amount of water," said Rogers. "The rain gauge was filled to overflowing twice. It seemed like many, many inches. And there's no drainage on the Nullarbor in terms of creeks-most of it shoots down holes in the ground.

"The hurricane blew away our tents, our equipment and overturned two large trailers we had at the campsite. I'm told the area looked like a war zone."

Mr Rogers, a research scientist with the in-vitro fertilisation programme at Melbourne's Monash University, added: "A wave of water flooded into the cave and took enough rock and mud with it to block the entrance, which was just like a giant plug hole, 40 metres in diameter."

He said the heavy rain caused a slow collapse of the entrance with rocks and water crashing down the shaft and blocking it about 30 metres down.

"While it was not a sudden process, it meant people at the top and the bottom of the shaft had to scramble to safety-either to ground level or back inside the cavern. I don't think the Nullarbor has seen anything like it for a long time."

Mr Rogers said the storm had also twisted road signs and virtually destroyed the Cocklebiddy roadhouse.

Three planes flew mining engineers and emergency service experts from Perth to the cave yesterday afternoon.

A two-way radio system, set up by an ABC electrician with the team, allowed those at the top and bottom of the cave to stay in constant touch.

Sgt George Johansen, working from the Cocklebiddy BP service station and motel (the only major building for hundreds of kilometres), said only one phone was operating and it was on battery power. He said the atmosphere in Cocklebiddy had been extremely tense all day.

Perth Police Inspector Jim Griffiths said that one man, a caving expert, had initially managed to crawl through a narrow opening into another cave and reported seeing daylight.

"We then knew they were getting oxygen supplied continually through that gap," Inspector Griffiths said.

"The biggest problem then was whether to drill or to remove debris,"Inspector Griffiths said.

Rescuers, fearing another storm, first dug a large trench around the entrance to the cave shaft to act as a moat, and placed drill rigs in the area on standby.

The Cocklebiddy region is a popular cave exploration site on the edge of the Eyre Highway.

The world famous Cocklebiddy underwater caves run for hundreds of kilometres under the Nullarbor.

© 1988 Sun Herald

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