They Saw the Light: Five Cave Rescues That Worked


HONG KONG — The world is watching as emergency workers in Thailand prepare to rescue 12 boys and a soccer coach who were discovered in a flooded cave on Monday.

They became trapped after entering the Tham Luang Cave on June 23 after soccer practice. Evacuating the group through flooded passages will be difficult and dangerous, experts say, in part because the boys are unlikely to have dived before.

But if the operation succeeds, it will be the latest example of a cave-rescue mission ending in joy, not sorrow.

The sport of caving began in the British Isles in the late 19th century, and the first caving clubs were formed in England in the 1920s and 1930s, according to the British Cave Rescue Council, whose divers are involved in the rescue effort in Thailand. But as interest in caving grew, the council said, the risks of “accidents in places accessible only to fellow cavers increased in parallel.”

Here are a few tales of cave rescues that worked:

A cry for help, in a box

In 1983, eight amateur spelunkers were trapped in a Kentucky cave after a rainstorm caused a stream to rise, sealing their only escape route. Rescuers pinpointed their search after finding a note in a box — headlined “HELP” — left by the team’s co-leader.

“Been here since 11 A.M. Sat 4-23,” the note said. “Now Mon 4-25 12 noon.”

Hours later, the rescuers found the spelunkers waiting on a dry ledge, 1,800 feet upstream from where the box had been found, and gave them food and warm clothing.

“Everybody’s fine,” Tom Staubitz, the vice chairman of the spelunkers’ club, told The Associated Press, as rescuers prepared for an evacuation. “They’re a little cold.”

Night of the 31 pizzas

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The operation to rescue Emily Davis Mobley in Carlsbad, N.M., in 1991.CreditMichael J. Dillon for The New York Times

In 1991, the caving expert Emily Davis Mobley was exploring Lechuguilla Cave, in Carlsbad, N.M., when a falling 80-pound rock broke her leg.

In 2004, when six British men headed into a Mexican cave with a larger group, they expected to return 36 hours later. Instead, floodwaters trapped them for more than a week — until they were saved by compatriots who had flown in to rescue them.