First your headlamp failed and then your backup light and then the light on your phone. It’s pitch black. Not just shadowy black, but absolutely, completely black – so black that the fish have no eyes. You’re in a limestone cave, deep underground. You’ve been utterly lost for hours. There are no paths, only the boulder beneath you. You’re cold, wet, …and alone. You see nothing. You hear the echo of your breathing and the sound of dripping water that comes from nowhere and everywhere. You’re frozen in place – any movement could result in a fatal fall. You have no choice but to sit completely still and wait for rescue, maybe for days, maybe forever.
Perhaps someone will come looking for you, like they did for overdue cave prospector Floyd Collins in Kentucky in 1925. Maybe things will turn out better for you than they did for Mr. Collins. Rescuers found him deep underground, immobile, arms trapped at his sides, leg pinned by a fallen rock in a narrow, claustrophobic shaft. The rescuers could not get beyond Floyd to reach the fallen rock and spent the next fourteen days trying to free him, as the sand sifted around his body, packing tighter and tighter. The rescue efforts ended when the cave became too dangerous for the rescuers. The unfortunate Mr. Collins died a few days before miners digging a parallel shaft reached his body. Mr. Collins, wherever he is, may have the satisfaction of knowing that he was the third greatest media event of the 1920s and 30s, behind Charles Lindbergh and ahead of the Great Depression.
Inventions could have helped (you knew we’d get to inventions eventually). If only Mr. Collins had a Heyphone by British inventor John Hey. The Heyphone is a low-frequency radio specifically designed for communication underground, where higher-frequency radio does not work. Or the invention of 16 year old Alexander Kendrick, that allows texting underground. Either of those devices would have allowed Mr. Collins to conduct his media interviews in person, making him even more famous.
You did bring your Heyphone along, didn’t you?
A Heyphone certainly would have helped Peter Verhulsel who became hopelessly lost while cave diving in South Africa in 1984. Running low on air in his scuba tank, Mr. Vehulsel found an underground island in an otherwise flooded cave. He hauled out on the island and waited for rescue in the pitch black. And waited. And waited. After three weeks Mr. Verhulsel starved to death after scrawling a farewell message in the sand. His remains were not discovered for another three weeks.
This being America, we must have a happy-ish ending. The Heyphone was used successfully in the truly heroic 2018 rescue of the Wild Boars youth soccer team and their young coach from a flooded cave in Thailand. Like Floyd Collins, their two-week underground ordeal seized the attention of the world, this time including the attention of Elon Musk. In a few days, Mr. Musk and his engineers invented a rescue vessel from rocket parts and delivered it to Thailand. The on-site rescuers concluded that Musk’s invention was not practical for the application and the boys were rescued using conventional scuba technology. One rescue diver died in the effort, but all of the boys and their coach survived. The apparently frustrated Mr. Musk referred to another of the rescue divers as a ‘pedo guy’ on social media posts, but won the resulting libel lawsuit.
Hey, everybody, let’s go caving! Happy Halloween!
— Robert Yarbrough, Esq.