Eight cave explorers, trapped underground for three days in a flooded cave in southeastern Kentucky, wormed their way to freedom through a dark water-filled passageway yesterday, guided by a hand line and pressing their noses against the limestone ceiling to breathe from a pocket of air pumped in by rescue workers.
"They basically swam out with their noses in the air," said Steve Hudson, one of six divers who helped rescue the band of spelunkers who were stranded when heavy rain inundated a 100-foot horizontal passageway they had entered Saturday.
The six men and two women, all experienced spelunkers from the Cincinnati area, emerged dripping wet to cheers, hugs and handshakes from the crowd of anxious relatives that had gathered along with rescue workers, paramedics and reporters at the mouth of the cave known as "Precinct 11" near Mount Vernon, Ky.
After they were pronounced healthy by paramedics, they changed their clothes and feasted on sandwiches and coffee.
"All came out walking on their own," said Sandra Hissong, whose husband, Jack Hissong, was one of the leaders of the trip along with Gary Bush. "It was a great, great feeling. The waiting was over," she said.
Jack Hissong told United Press International that the ordeal will not keep him out of caves.
"It's my life, I have been doing it for 30 years," he said. "I feel like Neil Armstrong. My footprints have been places where no human beings have been."
Bush told diver George Veni, "I don't know how I could ever repay you guys," Veni said.
As members of the Greater Cincinnati Grotto of the National Speleological Society, all but one of the group had explored Precinct 11 before.
The party entered the cave Saturday to continue their mapping survey of the limestone formation, and had taken the precaution of packing extra supplies.
Sandra Hissong said they had planned either to explore another cave on Sunday or "ridge walk," which in the spelunking world means hiking in the open air above a cave to look for other openings.
"They took all the proper precautions," said Veni. "They'd been in the cave before and it hadn't flooded. They knew to put a stick in the cave stream to gauge the water level. The forecast was for a light sprinkle, but it really poured."
On Monday, divers found a note left by the party. It read: "Help, eight cavers on a ledge 1,800 feet upstream."
The rescue effort hinged on lowering the water in the passageway with pumps to create breathing room for the party. The visiblity, even with bright electric lamps, was six inches.
After the divers pulled a thin rope through the murky water, they located the spelunkers where the party said it would be when it left the note.
"They were kind of thrilled to see somebody," Hudson said. "They knew somebody was helping them because they heard the pumps. We basically told them what the situation was and that it might be a matter of a few hours or a few days."
The group was bolstered by canteens of hot chocolate, cans of beef stew and C-rations, and sleeping bags and foil space blankets taken in to them by the divers.
"They were singing songs and joking," Hudson said. "They were in good condition."
The party made its way out in single file yesterday about 10:30 a.m. In the trickest section near the mouth, one of the members said he had to remove his helmet to get through.
The group headed back to Cincinnati yesterday afternoon. Most of them, according to Sandra Hissong, planned to stop for celebratory dinner before splitting up and heading home.