“There is no bad time to go caving, and winter is usually one of the better times to go,” said Bretzville resident Nick Benton, a local caver who was part of the team that found the missing cavers in the Binkley Cave system on Sunday. “Ironically, you don’t usually have to worry about flooding when the weather is freezing cold.”
Benton contends that with the forecast originally only calling for up to half an inch of rain, the group should have been able to leave confident the water levels were fine for the cave survey. However, with flash flood warnings issued as over four inches fell on the small area around the cave system, the rapidly rising water turned their trip into an overnight stay.
“They were all experienced and knew what they were doing. They were just caught in a freak flash flood,” Benton said about the seven missing cavers.
The water levels in the cave rose very quickly forcing the group to retreat to a higher section. It was a remote area far enough away from the entrance that they couldn’t tell what the water levels were like between them and the exit.
They just had to wait for the water to recede with the faith that other cavers in the community would launch a rescue.
When the Department of Natural Resources asked for help to locate the seven missing cavers Sunday morning, members of several volunteer groups of cavers descended on the Binkley Cave system near Corydon.
Seen as the best resource of information and experience with the caves, the specially trained and experienced cavers belonging to the Indiana Speleological Survey began to organize with Indiana Conservation Officers and local law enforcement to set up a command center to plan an extrication effort.
“There was no rushing in there,” Benton explained. “No one just went into hero mode and rushed in there to try and find them. It is all planned out and methodical.”
According to 34-year-old, he and the other members of his group had an idea of where the group of seven were headed due to email invitations with the trip plan and timeline involved. The planned objective was well known and advertised to the group’s members.
But, there aren’t a lot of people in the area that know how to get where the group was supposed to travel.
“I am one of the two and I don’t know exactly how to get where they were at,” he said. “Tim Pride from Oakland City really is the one with the knowledge of how to get back to that area.”
Benton and Pride were joined by another experienced caver, Shane Myles from Petersburg. The trio would be the first group to go into the cave looking for the missing seven.
They entered the cave at about 1:30 p.m. after the water had receded enough for authorities to give them the go-ahead to launch the expedition.
“The water was going down, but we still found ourselves in it up to our waists and even up to our necks at times,” Benton said. “It is usually ankle-deep, but with the way the river came up, some of the passages had flooded all the way up to the ceiling.”
Wearing wet suits in the 52-degree water, their goal was to simply head to the missing group’s objective. Finally, Benton wasn’t sure how far in they were — maybe three of four miles — they found a message etched in the muddy bank of an underground stream. It said the group was safe and it also gave their location as being in a higher area of the cave that never flooded, according to Benton.
Spurred on by the message, Benton, Pride and Myles located the group a short time later. “They were basically camped out up there,” Benton said. “They knew when the water level went down, especially at the entrance, a cave rescue would be launched.”
Prepared for a 15-hour journey but now well into more than 30 hours in the cave, the group was tired and cold. “They did have alcohol stoves and could warm up water for tea or soup,” Benton said, adding that being in the cave for so long had taken a toll on the group.
The rescuers provided space-blankets and warmed up more soup and food for the exhausted cavers before heading back to the entrance. Two of the missing cavers made it out at about 11:30 p.m. Sunday evening — 10 hours after the rescuers entered the cave. The final five made it out by 3 a.m.
“It was really a self-rescue,” Benton admitted. “They just made it out at their own pace. Nobody was in real bad shape. They had hot coffee waiting when they got out.”