Cave Rescue, June 18, 1990
New Trout Cave, WV


At around 9 a.m. on Monday, June 18, a group of three cavers entered New Trout Cave, Pendleton County, West Virginia. This is one of four National Speleological Society owned caves known as Trout Rock Caves along the South Branch of the Potomac River. The three were Gary Lutes (37) and his two sons, Gary Jr. (13) and Timoth (9). Lutes' caving experience stretched back 20 years, but the two boys were essentially novices. They each had a new Premier carbide lamp and Gary Sr. carried the one pack containing their extra food, water, and carbide along with their backup lights, a cigarette lighter and a candle. Lutes had experience in this particular cave and they were also equipped with gloves, kneepads, and hardhats.

They proceeded 1,000 feet to the Big Room, some 50 feet across and 20 feet high. They had a bite to eat, then proceeded into the Maze, a honeycomb of ledges, corridors and tight passages. When they came to an eight foot drop into a tight section of passage, Lutes left the pack -- he didn't want to struggle with it in the tight places. They had recarbided ten minutes before and should have been good for two to three hours. Ten minutes later they had proceeded some 200 feet when Tim's light began to fail. They turned back but had gone 20 feet before it failed completely. Lutes began to hurry back to the pack, with the boys following, when Gary Jr.'s light failed. The area passages were mostly crawlways and stoop ways and Lutes realized he was confused. He tried one false lead, then another, with the boys asking, "Dad, are you lost?". When his light, the last of the three, went out, there was no denying it, they were lost.

Lutes considered crawling on in the dark with the boys hanging on to him, but if he couldn't find the pack with light, how could he do it in the dark? He gathered the spent carbide from the three lamps, collected the unspent pellets, and using urine in the water chamber, got one lamp going. He didn't find the pack, but got the three of them into a more spacious chamber, where they could almost stand, before this carbide too, was expended. They sat down to wait in the 54 degree cave, sitting on their kneepads to conserve heat.

Lutes knew they had a long wait ahead of them -- he had not informed anyone of their intentions. On Wednesday, a local resident called the West Virginia State Police to report Lutes' vehicle which hadn't been moved for three days. It had Florida plates, so Florida authorities were questioned. Lutes' address in Florida was obtained and called with no answer on Wednesday and Thursday.

In the cave, the Lutes were going through some changes, coughing from the dust and dehydration, having chest pains, irregular breathing, seeing flashes of light, yearning for water and food, crying, consoling each other, thinking they were going to die, and praying for one more chance at life. Finally, they lay down together, weak and knowing the end was coming.

On Friday, the State Police contacted Barry Chute of the Potomac Speleological Society (the Lutes' vehicle was, of course, parked near the caves), who called a Florida caver who learned that the Lutes' were in Pendleton County to go caving, followed by a visit to grandparents on Thursday night. The grandparents, when contacted, had assumed the trio was having a good time caving and was merely delaying their visit.

Cave rescuers soon mobilized. One immediate problem was lack of knowledge as to which of the four caves the victims were in -- their vehicle was merely parked on Highway 220. There was no note on it, nor in the register near the entrance to New Trout Cave. Lutes' was known to be a "squeeze freak" and one thought that he was trapped in the Airblower, a bedding plane constriction in the back of Hamilton Cave.

The cavers on the scene broke up into small parties and did a cursory search of each cave, finding no sign, and no note in either of the registers in Hamilton or Trout Caves. More cavers were mobilized. When New Trout was searched in earnest, the Lutes' pack was soon found and runners were sent to the surface to concentrate manpower. When the rescuers, expecting a body recovery, continued into the Maze, they were surprised to have their shouts returned by the Lutes'. Gary Lutes and Gary Jr. were able to exit under their own power, but Tim was too weak and had to be carried out. They had been in the cave for four days and 17 hours.


NSS News, December 1990 (Part 2) V4N13, Page 342-343.

Greg Moore, "Family Saved After Five Days in Cavern", Sunday Gazette-Mail (Charleston, WV), June 24, 1990.

AP, "Family Recited Bible While Trapped in Cave", Marietta Daily Journal, June 25, 1990, p. 1A, 8A.

Meg Grant, "Entombed in a Cave for Five Days, a Father and His Two Young Sons Are Rescued on the Verge of Death", People Magazine, August 13, 1990, p. 99-106.

George Dasher, "West Virginia Cave Rescues", The Region Record, 4(3) September 1990, p. 37-40 (from The West Virginia Caver, August 1990, 8(4) p. 11.

Russ Carter, "Editors Analysis", The Region Record, 4(3), September 1990, pp. 39-42.


Incredible! Unbelievable! I always thought the NSS was immune from the totally absurd incidents, the dim flashlights and knotted ropes. But Mr. Lutes has clearly broken new ground, and I now turn him over to the kind ministrations of the honorable Russ Carter.

"Why did an NSS Caver, with 20 years of experience, enter a cave with only one light per person? Why did their carbide lamps run out of water after only an hour when normally they last three to four hours? Why did they leave their pack after they had to refill their lamps after 45 minutes in the cave? Why only one pack? Why didn't urinating in the lamp work long enough to get them to their pack?"

"This rescue should never have taken place. Gary Lutes violated every rule that the NSS and the rest of organized caving preaches to each and every one of us: Carry three sources of light each! Tell someone where you are caving and when you will return!"

The dust that caused respiratory problems apparently is soot, left by nitrate miners years ago.