On Saturday, September 24, two students from Virginia Tech, Jeff Snyder and Rex Linville decided to go caving. They had attended a few VPI Cave Club meetings but were not members. Still, both were experienced cavers.
At Pig Hole Cave in Giles County, Virginia, they signed the entrance register and at 10:30 a.m. they entered the Back Entrance. Neither had been in the cave before, but reportedly had experience in other caves. Jackie Redder Hoell, the faculty advisor to the Cave Club, was reported as saying:"They weren't what we call 'nerd cavers' -- they were people who knew what they were doing . . ." They had MSA helmets with chinstraps and used carbide lamps and both had fanny packs with extra light sources. Snyder wore tennis shoes while Linville had lugsole boots.
By noon they arrived at the Mud Bridge; they were unaware of the extent of the pits in this area. One dropoff was right before them and Snyder decided to see if he could climb down. This was a 60 foot drop into Hess's Hollow. They could see a ledge below and Snyder began climbing down toward this. When he was at eye-level to his starting point, he suddenly fell. Linville yelled to Snyder and could hear him moaning below. He went for help.
At 12:30 p.m. he left the cave and contacted the landowner who called the Giles County dispatch and in turn the Giles County Rescue Squad. The VPI Cave Club was also called via the VPI police. Linville could not describe where the fall had taken place and was instructed to go back and wait at the top of the pit.
Giles County and Newport Fire Department arrived first and sent a team of two into the cave. Cavers arrived and two rappelled the top entrance and proceeded to the Mud Bridge, arriving at 1:45 p.m. Four more arrived at 2 p.m. A rope was rigged into Hess's Hollw and two descended. One, an EMT, took vital signs -- there was no pulse and no respiration, pupils fixed and dilated. The body was cool to the touch, but warmer than the cave.
Hauling systems and personnel were organized and the body was evacuated, reaching the entrance at 8:30 p.m.
NSS News, December 1989 (Part 2) V47N12, Page 326-327.
Ken Gellman "Caver's fatal slip called a tragic accident" The Roanoke Times & World News.
Jackie Redder Hoell "Tradgedy in Pig Hole" Tech Troglodite (VPI Cave Club) Fall, 1988, p 7-9.
Some less obvious points bear repeating from Hoell's report. The helmet cam off in the fall and was found eight to ten feet from the victim. The chin strap had come unhooked on the right side. The cause of death was given as a "major depressed skull fracture in the left prosterior area, about two fingers wide, four to six inches long." A better helmet might have kept him alive. The victim also suffered fractures/dislocations of his left femur/hip and the lower bones in his left leg, as well as other head injuries.
As Hoell says in her Tech Troglodyte report, "Jeff was doing a climb without a belay in a cave he had never done before." Unfortunately the Times article quotes her as saying: "Because they didn't know the cave, they didn't know there was a pit -- I would call this a pure and simple accident. They did everything by the book, everything they were supposed to do. It was just one of those tragic things."
Obviously, this analysis is vastly different from the one for the NSS. Why are non-NSS cavers told, via the newspaper, that tennis shoes and climbing without a belay are OK? Do we care only about the safety of NSS cavers?