What It's Like to Attempt a Cave Rescue | Scuba Diving

What It's Like to Attempt a Cave Rescue

Edd Sorenson, Cave Rescuer

Edd Sorenson has been rescuing divers from caves since 1999.

Karen Pulfer Focht, The Commercial Appeal

The calls always start the same: “Edd, we need you now.”

Ninety-nine percent of the time, cave rescues end as a body recovery — but that doesn’t mean I don’t do everything in my power to save a life.

A diver had just exited Jackson Blue, a cave in Blue Springs Park outside Marianna, Florida. He rang my shop, Cave Adventurers, before calling 911.

Three divers exited. One was trapped inside. My assistant, Frank Gonzales, shouted “Lost diver!” as he grabbed my gear. I rushed from the warehouse, collecting my DPV, and jumped in my truck, peeling off at 100 mph. Frank assembled my gear, jouncing around in the truck bed as we bounded over potholes.

Upon arrival, I suited up; Frank debriefed the divers. They reported being in the Horseshoe Jump, a forking branch of the main cave. Instinct said otherwise, so I questioned their tunnel entrance. Turns out, they had misread their location and wormed into a more dangerous area where, only months prior, I had performed a rescue.

Inside, I groped in the dark, listening for breathing, fingers tapping on a tank — anything. Then I reached a crack leading to another, higher room, and that day, a wall of silt.

Oh, shit, he’s up there. I prepared for contact. Experience said he would attack me: Panicked divers see you as a stepladder to safety. They rip off your mask and reg. Spares packed, I knew I could handle it.

Then I saw them: a pair of legs dangling straight down, motionless.

Damn. He’s dead.

I reached for him, exhaling. Then his eyes rolled toward me — my bubbles had startled him. I shot into the air pocket where inches of his face had sought shelter. I talked him though my exit strategy. I needed him calm, breathing from one of my regulators.

In an emergency, your mind races through the what-ifs. What you face isn’t really fear, but dread. I thought of the possibility of bringing this guy 7/8ths of the way to safety, then needing to reclaim my regulator or perish myself if our air supply ran too low.

A swim that normally takes four minutes took 20 because of the silt — that’s a lot of time for what-ifs. But we did it: We exited to a cheering crowd.

For a successful cave rescue, a thousand things have to go right, and a million things can go wrong. I’ve been recovering bodies since 1999 and never kept count. Usually it’s a thankless job. That day, fortune smiled.

Read more: 7 Best Cave Dives | Safe Cave Diving | Video: Diving in a Sacred Maya Cave