The passageway at the floor of the underwater cave was about two feet high and just a little wider than a broad set of shoulders. Just wide enough for Edd Sorenson to fit.
He was on a mission to find Josh Bratchley, a British diver who just last year had assisted in the harrowing rescue of a boys’ soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand — but who was now in need of a dangerous rescue himself.
Bratchley was trapped somewhere within the Mill Pond Cave in Flynn’s Lick, Tenn. A little-known cave system, it had been explored by only two other men before. And it was treacherous, said Sorenson, a world-class diver flown in from Florida to try to save him. As he searched for Bratchley, Sorenson could barely see. The mud and the silt on the cave floor — a bed of jagged limestone — clouded the water as he swam through the tiny crawl space. He clutched a guideline and, in the absence of help from a map or even his own eyes, followed his instincts.
Hundreds of feet above the surface, an anxious rescue team watched the clock. It was 6 p.m. Wednesday, and by then, Bratchley had been trapped in the cave for more than 24 hours.
“Everyone was concerned that this was a recovery mission,” Joey Denson, captain of the Jackson County Rescue Squad, told The Washington Post.
The rush to rescue 27-year-old Bratchley played out quietly all day Wednesday in an unincorporated hillside of Jackson County as Bratchley’s British colleagues and multiple rescue teams waited to see whether Sorenson would emerge with the diver dead or alive. Bratchley had no food or water. No one knew whether he had found an air pocket or had drowned after running out of air, or if he had gotten lost in the murky water and died of hypothermia.
But what everyone remembered was Bratchley’s superior training, and how just months ago Queen Elizabeth II appointed him a member of the Order of the British Empire for his role as a support diver in the stunning Thai cave rescue. The team of cave divers saved the 12 boys and their coach after they had been trapped for nine days in total darkness in a flooded cavern, a rescue operation that gripped the world.
Sorenson had never met Bratchley before, but he already knew of him. Both of the elite explorers had been following the other’s achievements for years, and now here they were, on the brink of an unlikely meeting at the bottom of a grimy cave.
“Cave diving is 80 percent mental,” Sorenson told The Washington Post. Surviving, he said, would require Bratchley “to have the mental fortitude to keep himself alive.”
Bratchley had journeyed to the cave earlier this week from the United Kingdom with at least two other cave divers, perhaps enthralled by the potential uncharted territory. The cave had been discovered as recently as 2017, when Jason Richards became the first person to map and explore the 434-foot underwater path leading to a large air bubble before dead-ending.
But what if that wasn’t really the end of the cave?
“They were trying to find an extension,” Richards, a cartographer and cave diver based in Hawaii, told The Post.
It all went wrong on Tuesday afternoon.
Bratchley was in the cave with one other teammate when the guideline broke — “their lifeline,” Denson said.
The rope was supposed to lead the two men back to the surface, but now they were separated, a sea of silt and mud between them.
“That line is the only way to get out,” Sorenson said. “When he lost that line, he had no chance.”
Bratchley’s teammates tried to find him for hours in the tiny crawl spaces, and meanwhile Bratchley tried to find the exit. The cave isn’t necessarily a labyrinth, Richards said — but when you can’t see anything, and when sometimes only 18 inches divide the ceiling from the floor, it might as well be one. Richards said he was surprised any divers had even wanted to further explore the Mill Pond Cave, what he called a “terrible little grode hole.”
“Having to squeeze all of your gear and your body through something that is just barely bigger than your body is psychologically more than a lot of people want to deal with,” he said.
Eventually, Bratchley realized if he kept swimming around aimlessly through the tiny spaces, he would run out of air, Denson said.
Instead, he made the choice that the rescue teams now say probably saved his life: He retreated to the air bubble, took off his gear and perched himself on a rock. He would remain there for the next 24 hours.
Denson said the first 911 call came in from Bratchley’s teammates around 1 a.m. Wednesday, after they had done all they could to find him. The challenge they faced in even summoning emergency services, Denson said, was that very few are trained for the type of cave diving required for the rescue. Even the cave rescuers from Chattanooga Hamilton County Rescue Service did not have the expertise required. Denson said they called Richards, the cave explorer who knew the Mill Pond site better than anyone, to ask his advice.
“I think his words were, ‘There are only two guys I would trust to send in on that cave rescue,' " Denson said.
One, of course, was Sorenson, who has rescued or recovered dozens of people from caves during the past 20 years as a founding member of the International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery.
He arrived in Nashville about 3 p.m. on Wednesday and was flown by helicopter to the Mill Pond Cave.
There was only one way in and one way out. At exactly 6 p.m., Sorenson entered the cave through what looks like a portal to the underworld, an eerie black hole at the base of a tree on the edge of the shallow pond. He swam downward until the space began to shrink ― and then began the part unfit for claustrophobics.
He inched along for about a half-hour, until he saw a glimmer, the sign he had reached the air pocket.
He braced himself as he poked his head out of the water, afraid he would emerge to find Bratchley lying limp in the water.
Instead, he found him sitting on the rock, so covered in silt that he “looked like a snowman made of mud,” Sorenson said. More striking than that: He was calm, alert. Alive.
"Thanks for coming for me,” Bratchley said, according to Sorenson. “Who are you?”
“I’m Edd Sorenson,” he responded — and Bratchley gave him a knowing look.
“I should have known when I saw your Sidewinders,” he responded, pointing to the Sorenson’s trademark breathing gear attached to his hips rather than his back, gear that he helped popularize within the cave diving community.
Sorenson said he talked with Bratchley for a few minutes to make sure he was mentally sound and physically able to make the journey back, and to every question, Sorenson said, Bratchley said yes. He was fine, Bratchley assured him. Hungry, thirsty, cold, but entirely fine.
When the two reemerged just 50 minutes later, after following Sorenson’s guideline back to the surface, Bratchley refused medical treatment, Jackson County Emergency Management Agency spokesman Derek Woolbright said. He didn’t want to go to a hospital, Woolbright said.
“His only request was that he wanted some pizza,” he said.
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