Cave rescue

Chase Newham, a firefighter and EMT with the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District, saws through the locked entrance to Cave of the Bells to rescue five trapped people after their key broke.

Using a saw to break through the bars of a locked entrance, the Sonoita-Elgin Fire District rescued five people trapped in a cave near Gardner Canyon early Tuesday morning.

The group became trapped after they broke the key that opens the gate to the Cave of the Bells, SEFD Chief Joseph DeWolf said.

“I don’t know too many people that have locked themselves in caves, so it was unique,” he quipped.

DeWolf said the group was in good spirits and everyone was able to walk out of the cave and drive home. He said SEFD helped one diabetic woman take insulin.

The fire chief said the spelunkers entered the cave at 9:30 a.m. on Monday and after exploring it, returned to the entrance around 5 p.m. As the group tried to open the lock, the key broke off, said Heidi Schewel, spokeswoman for the Coronado National Forest.

DeWolf said one of the caver’s spouses eventually contacted the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office to report the missing group. Personnel from the Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Forest Service went to the cave but were unable to help them escape without extra keys on hand.

“At that late hour it was not possible to make all of the contacts necessary to determine the locations of our keys,” Schewel said.

DeWolf received a call from the Sheriff’s Office at 2:30 a.m. on Tuesday, and he and five other firefighters rescued the cavers by cutting the gate open with a circular K-saw.

Schewel said the spelunkers received the key used to open the gate from Southern Arizona Grotto, a Tucson-based caving club, but Alfonso Abad, the group’s vice-president said the key was provided by a Forest Service volunteer. Abad said the rescued cavers did not want to make any comments to the press.

DeWolf said this was the second time his department responded to an incident at the Cave of the Bells. Several years ago, he said, SEFD personnel rappelled into the cave to rescue a man and transport him to a hospital after he fell and injured his head.

“If you like crawling around in caves, this is a really nice cave to go into. You can spend eight hours or so in this Cave of the Bells and these (recently rescued) folks told us it was fascinating,” he said. 

The CNF’s Cave of the Bells webpage describes the cave, located in Sawmill Canyon on the eastern slopes of the Santa Rita Mountains, as “a fascinating and fragile underground wilderness” filled with mineral formations and a heated lake 80 meters below the entrance.

The webpage says the entrance is locked to protect the cave from vandalism, but the key can be picked up for a $100 refundable deposit at the Forest Supervisor’s Office in Tucson. Call (520) 388-8300 for more information.

Schewel said the cave remains open to the public and visitors to the CNF “should prepare by knowing conditions into which they will enter, having a plan and maintaining flexibility. For their safety it is recommended that recreationists advise another party or parties of their plans, and identify procedures to be followed should they not return on time or maintain contact.”


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