[This article contains a complex diagram -- Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
A quick examination of the National Speleological Society's annual listings of American caving accidents makes one thing chillingly clear: Water and caves can be a deadly combination. According to the 2004 NSS report, of the 14 adult fatalities that year not involving illness or intoxication, 10 occurred in cave diving or swimming incidents. Add inexperience to the mix, and the danger increases exponentially.
That point was underscored in Utah last month when four young adventure seekers died in a small cavern in the Seven Peaks area outside Provo. The bodies of J. Blake Donner, 24, Jennifer Galbraith, 21, Scott McDonald, 28, and Ariel Singer, 18, were recovered on Aug. 18 by the Utah County sheriff's search and rescue team from a water-filled passageway 90 feet into the cave.
Far from experienced spelunkers, the four friends were reportedly dressed in shorts and sandals for their postmidnight expedition to the cave--which, though unknown to most Provo officials, was a familiar attraction for area youths, often jokingly referred to as "the cave of death." After entering the cave at around 2 a.m., the four apparently made their way to the submerged tunnel--a 15-foot-long passage, 21/2 feet in diameter, that opens at the other end in a small chamber with room to stand and breathe. They swam through, pulling themselves along with the help of a fixed rope. It was on the way out that something went wrong. The positions in which the bodies were found suggests that the first of the group, one of the women, might have gotten disoriented in the dark, cold water and blocked the passage.
Officials have since sealed the entrance to the cave and posted a NO TRESPASSING sign there. "People have got to understand it's a very dangerous environment," Provo police lieutenant Scott Finch told the Deseret News. "We want people to enjoy the caves and mountains, but they have to be prepared."
-- Richard O'Brien