Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: The Cave Rescue

Jul 30, 2018

The dramatic rescue of a youth soccer team in Thailand conjured up some memories for KNAU commentator Scott Thybony. In 1965, when he was just 16 years old, Scott took part in the rescue of four men trapped inside a cave in Arkansas. The two events—decades and thousands of miles apart—share some eerie similarities. 

An article in the Arkansas Gazette detailing the rescue, 1965
Credit Scott Thybony

Air bubbles broke the dark surface of an underground lake as I waited in a boat for the last cave explorer to be rescued.  In the spring of 1965 four men had entered an Arkansas cave and spent the next 24 hours exploring the deep passageways.  Unknown to them, heavy rains had triggered a dramatic rise in water levels at the entrance to Rowland Cave, flooding the only exit and trapping the cavers underground. 

Attempts by local divers to reach the stranded men failed, and a call for help went out to the National Capital Cave Rescue Team in Washington, DC.  Joined by three U.S. Navy divers, our five-man team was airborne in a few hours.  While the youngest at 16 years old, I had extensive experience in exploring major caves and felt ready for whatever we might face. The team leader, concerned with appearances, kept my age hidden as much as possible.

Scott Thybony's cave rescue team. Scott is standing second from the right
Credit Scott Thybony

Recent reports of the young soccer players caught in a flooded Thailand cave brought back memories of the Arkansas rescue—the dark waters, the divers in wetsuits wearing headlamps, and always the uncertainty.  The key difference between the two situations was the distance to be covered underwater.  In Arkansas, the cavers faced a dive of several hundred feet, while the boys in Thailand had to exit by a tortuous passageway more than two-miles long, a quarter of it underwater.

The operation at Rowland Cave went much smoother than expected.  Our divers located the flooded passage and found the trapped men huddled under a makeshift shelter of ponchos.  The only way for them to escape the cave was underwater.  After a five-minute lesson in scuba diving they were escorted to safety, one by one.  Mike Hill, the first to be rescued, approached the waiting crowds.  “What kind of a carnival have you got going?” asked the 19-year-old student.  “Where’s the popcorn?”  The others followed at 30-minute intervals.

The last caver to swim the underwater dive, Steve Wilson felt his way along the guide rope on the verge of panic the entire way.  Barely able to see the diver in front of him, the 20-year-old was followed by master diver Lyle Thomas.

Scott Thybony - on the right - inside the Rowland Cave. He was 16 years old at the time
Credit Scott Thybony

As I waited in the boat at the dive site, the cave explorers surfaced with the rescue divers.  The entire operation had only taken three hours.  I could hear the cheers back at the entrance where medical teams, camera crews, and hundreds of spectators had gathered.  Thomas, the last Navy diver, climbed onboard my boat, and seemed unusually subdued as I rowed back across the lake.  As the boat nosed into the rocky bank, he jumped off to pull us in—and collapsed face-first without putting out his arms to break the fall. 

I reached the diver in an instant, and while turning him over the head of our rescue team appeared and immediately began CPR.  I’m still amazed by how quickly he read the situation and acted.  A doctor soon arrived and cut open the diver’s wetsuit, revealing a huge spread eagle tattoo covering his chest.  As the news cameras rushed in, the lieutenant in charge of the Navy team ordered them back, angry at their invasion of the diver’s privacy.  They left without a word of protest.  The doctor pronounced the diver dead after a concerted effort to revive him failed. An autopsy later confirmed he died of a heart attack.

The rescue was documented in the magazine Popular Science, 1965
Credit Scott Thybony

The plane touched down at Andrews Air Force Base on our return.  By then I had gone 48 hours without sleep, and now faced another challenge—the stack of homework I’d missed.  For two years our cave rescue team flew to major incidents around the country, only to disband when our lives headed in different directions.  Some of us left for college, others for Vietnam.  I headed west, leaving the underground behind.