When he noticed water coming out of the walls of the cave he had been exploring in Kentucky on Thursday, Clemson University student Riley Blais knew something was wrong.
Then he, and the other geology students who were part of his group from Clemson, felt a change in the wind. Then they could hear flowing water.
“We realized at that point that we were in a really, really bad spot,” the geology major from Southbury, Connecticut, told The Greenville News. “So we basically started running through the cave to get out of there.”
After fighting their way through a mile-long rain-driven river that was neck deep on some of the students for about 45 minutes, Riley emerged from the mouth of Hidden River Cave unharmed. He was one of the first four out.
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It would be another 45 minutes, though, before another group of Clemson students who had been exploring a different part of the cave, would make it out safely.
Clemson geology professor Scott Brame, who wasn’t inside the cave when a sudden torrential downpour began flooding it with rainwater, was leading a group of 63 students on a hydrogeology field trip, 14 of whom were inside Hidden River Cave when it flooded.
“This isn’t like a typical cave tour that you just go in and walk around and have a tour guide,” he said.
“This is a wild cave tour where you have helmets and headlamps and you’re dressed to be basically wet and muddy for five hours. And you traverse way back into caves going through tight spots and holes and up and down and all over.”
Blais, 19, was with a group of students who had gone into an area deep within one of the caves chambers and was on his way back to an intersection with the main cavern when he noticed water on cave walls that had been dry when the group first came in.
Then they saw water on some of the paths that had been dry previously.
They were about a mile or a mile and a half from the cave entrance, and started running as fast as they could.
“It was really surreal at that point,” Blais said. “In the back of your mind, because you know that the cave is really filling up, the thought of drowning is there. But I tried to suppress that as much as I could and just focus on getting out so I wouldn’t stress myself out or any of my teammates that we were with.
“So we kept a pretty calm attitude. We weren’t having panic or anything.”
Before long they saw two men approaching from the opposite direction.
“We were basically running through the cave and we saw two guys who were trying to rescue us,” Blais said.
They told the rescuers there was another group behind them, and Blais and his group continued toward the cave entrance while the rescuers went deeper into the cave to find the others.
“We continued toward the mouth of the cave where we eventually met up with multiple police and firemen who were waiting to rescue us,” he said.
The water was about 5½ feet deep at its deepest point, about mid-chest level on Blais but up to the neck of some of his classmates.
“The closer toward the mouth of the cave we got, the water was flowing a lot more quickly, like a river,” he said.
Rescuers set up ropes to help lead them out of the cave and up the 300-foot elevation toward its mouth.
They emerged from the ordeal unharmed, nearly five hours after entering the cavern.
“It was very relieving,” Blais said. “At the same time, we knew that there are other people still in the cave so it was very bittersweet.”
Despite the harrowing experience, Blais said his enthusiasm for geology isn't dampened.
“I’d definitely do it again,” he said. “But you have to be more aware of the conditions, how fast they can change, and realize that nature’s in control.”
The tour guide, he said, “made the whole thing a blast.”
Tour guide Gary Russell had no way to communicate with the outside world and no idea that a flash flood was pouring through the cave's passages toward the group, The Associated Press reported
All he knew was that water wasn't supposed to be this deep in the cave and that meant trouble.
Russell and his group were among 19 people who escaped the flooded Hidden River Cave. They navigated neck-deep water, rushing currents and mud so thick it sucked off the police chief's boot. It was pitch black.
"It was shooting waterfalls out of the ceiling. The walls were thundering, there was so much water moving through it," David Foster, the executive director of the American Cave Museum at Horse Cave and a guide for 30 years, told AP.
"You just don't know what Mother Nature is capable of. There's only so much cave, and there's way more water."
Two police officers got trapped when they tried to rescue the group, Kentucky State Police Trooper B.J. Eaton told AP.
There was no communication between the stranded cavers and the more than 150 emergency personnel at the scene. Authorities didn't know exactly where the missing cavers were underground, and the only light the group had came from headlamps they wore.
Heavy rains began pouring down hours after the group ventured inside, Foster said. The storm hit earlier and harder than expected, and Foster grew so worried that he decided to call authorities and trek inside to get them.
Hidden River Cave begins at a sinkhole, 150-feet deep, in the center of downtown Horse Cave, Kentucky. It has two subterranean rivers that flow more than 100 feet below ground.
As Russell tried to lead his group out, the mist grew so thick it kept fogging up one student's glasses. He could barely see and kept stumbling.
"Just imagine going hiking in the mountains at night during a rainstorm and a mudslide," Russell told AP. "That's what this feels like. The water was so loud, it was like a jetliner; it was roaring."
Russell and his group were surprised to find the rescuers at the cave's mouth. But the other guide's group was still unaccounted for.
Foster and Police Chief Sean Henry began working their way deeper into the cave. The water was waist high in places and rising. There's only one way out, and they knew they'd have to come back out the way they came in. At one point, Henry said he saw the water closing in behind him and wondered if he'd ever leave. He held his flashlight in one hand and radio in the other, though his radio stopped picking up a signal shortly after they entered.
They could hear nothing over the roar of the water. Foster started to doubt he'd come down the right passage. He said anxiety built like a rock in his stomach. Then they heard it: "We're here. We're OK!" The students had shouted after seeing their flashlights, according to AP.
The way out was the most precarious, when they had to wade and swim through high water, Foster said. But they all made it through. They emerged about 4:30 p.m. Everyone lost was accounted for and uninjured.
"I've never been more happy to see the sunlight," Foster said. "It's such a good feeling when you get around the corner and you see the light, and you know you're going to make it out. What a relief."