All-out rescue effort frees caver
Injured man, 20, carried from depths of cave 24 hours after fall
By Tom Beal
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 03.18.2006
FORT HUACHUCA — Rescuers painstakingly extricated an injured man from the farthest reaches of a wet cave in the Huachuca Mountains on Friday afternoon, 24 hours after he had fallen into a 50-foot pit.
David F. Shipman, 20, a Duke University student visiting his family in Sierra Vista during spring break, was airlifted to University Medical Center at about 4 p.m. Friday. He was in stable condition Friday night.
Hospital officials would not comment on his injuries but the caver who led rescuers to Shipman said he had blood on his head, no apparent broken bones and possible internal injuries.
Shipman was conscious and coherent despite the painkillers administered by paramedics on the scene, said Maj. Gen. Barbara Fast, commander at Fort Huachuca, where the cave is located.
Shipman's ordeal began Thursday afternoon when he and two friends, who were not identified by authorities, entered a cave high up a slope at the north end of the Huachuca Mountains.
According to Steve Willsey, one of two experienced spelunkers who led rescuers into the cave, Shipman told his friends to wait for him in the cave's first room while he went looking for a memory card from his camera that he had lost on a previous trip.
When he hadn't returned in two hours, one friend hiked out and drove to where he could get a phone signal to call for help.
In all, about 170 military and civilian law-enforcement personnel and volunteers responded to the rescue. Sgt. David Noland, of Cochise County Search and Rescue, said the rescue was the most complicated one he had seen in 25 years on the job.
Willsey said the cave is known only to a handful of serious cavers. It's a 30-minute climb up a steep cliff face at the end of a 20-mile unimproved road.
The cave opening is a slit about 3 feet tall and 15 inches wide, said Daniel Parrotta, a member of the Cochise County Search and Rescue team and a civilian employee at the post.
Parrotta said he was too big to squeeze through the first opening.
Col. Jonathan Hunter, Fort Huachuca garrison commander, said Shipman was found at the back of a series of rooms with limited accessibility and a number of steep drops.
Getting Shipman out while keeping him immobilized presented a technical challenge. "I couldn't have designed an exercise to test these people to the max any better than this one," Hunter said.
Rescuers had to rope in and guide Shipman on a gurney through the maze.
It took more than 12 hours from the time Shipman was found to carry him to the mouth of the cave. From there he was winched aboard a Black Hawk helicopter and flown to a grassy field a few miles north. A medical helicopter landed in the field and ferried him to UMC.
Willsey, who said he and fellow veteran Cochise County caver Doug Noble had explored caves with Shipman many times, said his young friend broke one of the cardinal rules of spelunking by going into the cave alone, and broke another one when he rappelled down the vertical shaft by himself.
Willsey said Shipman was climbing from the deep pit at the back of the cave when something went wrong and he fell to the bottom.
"The Lord was merciful," said Willsey. "David knew the rules and he didn't follow the rules. He shouldn't have been back there by himself."
Willsey said his first fear yesterday was not finding his friend alive. His second was the media attention that would call attention to the cave.
He and Noble showed up as rescuers were assembling to look for Shipman Thursday night. "We got up here. Everybody's rolling in. I said 'please, please let me go help my friend.' "
He said Noland persuaded the multi-jurisdictional team to take the experienced cavers along. "We led them in," said Willsey. "They had the rescue expertise but we had the knowledge of the cave."
Willsey and Noble split up, taking different sections of the cave to explore. Willsey found Shipman. "At the very back of the cave there is a 50-foot pit. That is where he fell," Willsey said.
Noble said there has been talk of limiting entry to the cave. He said it would be a good idea because of its technical difficulty. "They could easily gate it, which they probably should," he said.
Assisting in the search were the Cochise County Search and Rescue Team, the Cochise County Sheriff's Department, Pima County Search and Rescue, the Southern Arizona Rescue Association, the U.S. Border Patrol's search and rescue team, Fry Fire Department, Fort Huachuca military police, the Department of Public Safety's rescue helicopter and paramedics, and the 305th Air Rescue Squadron from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Contact reporter Tom Beal at 573-4158 or email@example.com/metro/120689