At about 1 p.m. on Thursday, August 2, Mark Fowler (27), entered a newly opened cave in a road cut on US 460 in Tazewell County, Virginia, near the West Virginia - Virginia border. An excavation had exposed the cave but the opening was too small to enter. On July 30, Fowler had enlarged this opening and made a short excursion into the cave.
Thursday was Fowler's day off; he wore coveralls but no helmet and had a single electric light. He explored for a couple of hours. After down climbing into a hole with steep mud banks on the walls, the light failed. In the dark, Fowler could not climb up so he sat down to wait for help.
Fowler's parents reported him missing at about 11:00 p.m., but he had not told them where he was going. He commonly went solo caving, but had not taken all his caving gear and had taken his gym clothes. Fowler did not drive, so his whereabouts would not be revealed by a vehicle near the entrance of a cave. His caving friends were unaware of the road cut cave and figured Beacon Cave in Mercer County was the most likely, and spent the night searching upstream in that cave. At 7 a.m. on Friday a general call went out for cave rescuers.
A group went back to Beacon Cave, split into two groups -- each taking an entrance -- searching until they met in the cave, at which point they all searched downstream with no success.
As this group left, another arrived and was directed to search yet another part of the cave. They also found nothing.
The rescuers reformed and decided to send a group to Big Springs Cave and another to check out some of the caves west along US 460. They stopped at the new section of road to check some openings and noticed evidence of excavation at one. Two rescuers entered this while a second passable opening was checked by another team. The first group reached a 30-foot pit about 50 feet in and started yelling to see if the other group had entered the cave. In reply, they heard "a voice which sounded way off". Silene among the rescuers was requested and achieved. Mark's name was shouted -- he replied.
The victim's exact location was not easy to determine; the cave was quite fractured from construction blasting. They began to penetrate further by rigging and rappelling the pit while the State Police blocked traffic on US 460, keeping vehicles away from the entrance.
Passages off the bottom of the pit ended with no victim. As they ascended the pit, a crawl near the top with scuff marks was noticed. Yelling indicated the victim to be down this.
The 30-foot crawl led to a walking slot for 40 feet, then turned right and became a 4-foot tube sloping up and over another 30-foot pit. At this point, they conversed with Fowler, learning that he was unhurt but in a hole he couldn't climb. A rope was brought and one caver traversed above the pit on belay, moved on a bit and was able to fetch Fowler out of his hole. He was checked by an EMT and they headed for the entrance. A belay got everyone across the top of the first pit and they were soon out.
NSS News, December 1990 (Part 2) V4N13, Page 346.
Mike Lawhorn, "Cave Rescue -- August 3, 1990", The West Virginia Caver, (5), October 1990, p. 8-9.
"Mark Fowler broke all the rules in the book. He went into a highly unstable cave. He left no instructions or information as to his intentions. He had no extra lights or provisions. He did not have the proper equipment and he was caving along."
It was just blind luck that led rescuers to check that particular hole and, if Fowler had not been able to communicate, he would probably still be there.