On Sunday, July 23, four cavers, Aaron Bird, Jarrod Leland, Bonnie Flanagan (21) and Sean Flanagan, planned on a cross-over trip in My Cave in Pocahontas County, West Virginia. This would be a short trip, going in the Elk River Entrance, through the large, upper-level, mud passage, down the Outhouse Drop, upward through the Dune Room, and out the Dry Branch Entrance. All four had been in My Cave before and were familiar with the route, though none had done Outhouse Drop. All had experience with 40 to 60 foot drops. Bird, the trip leader, had visited the cave ten times and had been to both the top and bottom of the drop. They had three packs, two "huge, well-stocked horizontal packs and a vertical pack."
On the approach to the cave, although it apparently had not rained recently, the "normally dry" Elk River was flowing. They forded it twice, three getting wet only to their knees but Bonnie Flanagan fell in up to her chest.
Just before 10 a.m. they entered the cave and took their time moving down the trunk passage, pausing to check a side lead and look at sodastraws.
At Outhouse drop it was obvious that things were not normal -- a waterfall below the drop was roaring and it was "very, very noisy." The drop is a long, slippery mud slope of maybe 20 degrees for 60 to 80 feet followed by an 80 foot, partly free, section to a steep mud slope at the edge of a cave stream, an Elk River tributary.
The rope was rigged to a boulder in the crawlway before the drop, by Bird who intended to go back out the Elk River Entrance, do some ridge walking, and meet his companions at the Dry Branch Entrance.
Leland descended slowly, untangling the rope as he went. When he reached the bottom he found, instead of the normal trickle of water, a deep pool, of swimming depth. He got off the rope, yelled "off rope!" and was understood. He had descended without his ascending gear, however, and, though he wanted to ascend, could not and needed someone to bring the vertical pack down. He yelled up for Bird and the vertical gear, but this was not understood. Bonnie Flanagan descended with the vertical pack, landing in waist-deep water on the mud slope.
Leland did not realize she had the vertical pack -- he thought it was a "horizontal" pack -- and decided she should go to the other side of the flooded stream to wait. Even with the vertical gear present, he doubted that she could climb the drop. The only difficulty was that she was "already hypothermic" and "he knew Bonnie could not swim."
Bonnie de-rigged from her figure-8, took off the pack, and asked if it would float. Thinking it was the "horizontal" pack, Leland said that is would, and warned her that the water was over her head.
Wearing cotton coveralls and her vertical gear, she started across the 30 foot gap "half-floating, dog-paddling," with the pack on one arm. At the halfway point she went under.
Leland had a webbing handline but had not thought to tie it to the victim, and did not now think to throw it to her. He did jump in, grabbing at her shoulders, trying to find the pack strap. They flounered about; Leland exhausted, also was drowning. Somehow he caught the knot at the end of the rope and pulled himself up, caught a breath and got to shore.
The two above had not heard Bonnie yell "off rope!" but it went slack so they assumed she was off. After a minute or two, Leland began to shout. It was obvious something was very wrong, so Bird sent Sean Flanagan, Bonnie's brother, out to get help while he rigged and started down.
While still on the mud slope, Bird realized he had neither of the packs; he tried to climb back up to get them but the mud was too slippery. He continued down; at the vertical portion, he had to wrap the rope around his leg for friction -- the muddy rope was too fast for the figure - 8.
At the bottom he found Leland in waist-deep water on the mud bank shouting, "She's in the water! She's in the water!" Bird ordered him out of the water and told him to shut up and calm down. When he tried to walk along the mud bank, he slipped and got completely wet. Both were wearing poly-pro and wool thermals under a nylon over-suit, but the water was very cold. Leland was already hypothermic and had only a mini-maglite going.
Leland related what had happened and they agreed that Flanagan was dead. They got across the water, half-swimming, half-floating and climbed upward, toward the Dune Room. Leland could not get his main lamp to re-light.
At the muddy slope that rises to the Dune Room, Bird had to scoop steps with Leland's lamp reflector so they could climb it. Bird's carbide light had flooded at one point and soon went out; they had only the mini-maglite. They climbed high in the Dune Room, almost to the Junction Room, and sat down and huddled together, to wait for rescue.
The rescue was well-manned and elaborate but only seved to find the two in the Dune Room, four hours after they sat down to wait. The body was found by cave divers late the next afternoon, ten to twenty feet from the bottom of the rope, minus the pack and the caver's helmet.
NSS News, December 1990 (Part 2) V48N12, Page 342.
George Dasher "The My Cave Resce" The West Virginia Caver 7(5) Oct. 1989, p 6-9.
Ed. "Caver Drowns" The Pocahontas Times July 27, 1989.
It is stated that Aaron Bird "hoped to wean his three friends from their dependence on his vertical expertise." Except for the unexpected weather, it may have happened. The lesson to take home is that several decisions made here were not good ones yet are typical of decisions commonly made by cavers. The difference is that here an unusual and/or unexpected condition (flood) made those decisions fatal. The hard thing is to see something like this developing -- harder still is making a decision to abort the trip.