Cave Rescue, October 2, 1983
Driebelbis Cave, PA


Late Saturday evening, October I, a group of six cavers entered a cave at Driebetbis in Berks County, Pennsyvania, near Kutztown. At about 2 a.m. Robert E. Scott (36) was 75 feet from the entrance making his way through a narrow vertical crevice as the group exited. The crevice, some 80 feet high and 12 inches wide, narrowed to 7 or 8 inches in the middle, then became wider again below. Scott's hand slipped, his body dropped down, and he suddenly found himself wedged, left side down, in the middle portion. In that position he could not help himself-the sides and projections were all rounded and slimy with mud. He could gain no purchase-he was trapped.

For about 8 hours his companions tried unsuccessfully to free him. At 9:30 a.m. Sunday they went for outside help.

For some time volunteers from four fire departments labored to free the victim. The NCRC was called and 14 trained personnel were flown in from Pittsburgh, arriving late Sunday afternoon.

At first Scott was "in good spirits" but this deteriorated as Sunday wore on, and he became irrational and abusive to rescuers. The victim was an epileptic and was twice given medication to prevent seizures. This did not change his mood, however, With a line strung through the passage above him and slings around him, attempts were made to lift him vertically but as soon as a bit of progress was made he would begin to thrash wildly, defeating further action.

Instrumentation was set up outside and sensors were attached to the victim such that his vital signs could be monitored. Heat packs, high intensity lights and hair driers running off extension cords and blowing up the victims pants legs and sleeves, kept him warm. It was possible to feed him and at various times he was given coffee, broth, hot dogs and doughnuts. A request to use tranquilizers or sedation was refused by doctors directing the paramedics.

Rescuers worked constantly, trying to figure out a method of freeing the victim. Inflatable air bags were positioned under him in hopes of raising him when they were inflated. His body was greased, the wails were lined with plastic sheet-nothing worked. Meanwhile the victim screamed abuse at his potential saviors.

The need for permission for a sedative was thought sufficiently important that rescuers attempted to circumvent the local medical authority by patching into a local phone line to call a caver/doctor in California to get permission.

At about 7 a.m., Monday morning, however, as the victim delivered yet another tantrum, the vital signs ceased and Scott lost consciousness. Oxygen and " heated intravenous infusions" were administered to no avail.

" Painful' ' methods of extraction were then put into service using the high line, strung above the victim, and the slings around his body, dragging him up and out He was finally freed at 12:25 p.m, Hopes that he had lapsed into deep hypothermia proved to be unfounded and he was pronounced dead shortly after.


AP "Rescue attempt fails to save cave explorer" Beaver County Times (PA) Tues Oct 4, 1983.

Nancy March "Berks coroner and rescue coordinator call for sealing off Dreibelbis Cave" The Mercury (Pottstown, PA) Wed Oct 5, 1983 pp 1 , 5. 3)

Nancy March "Autopsy shows spelunker died of heart attack caused by shock" ibid.

Nancy March "Trappe spelunker trapped in Berks Cave" Ibid. Mon Oct 3, 1983 pp 1, 7.

Nancy March "Spelunking expedition ends in tradegy" Ibid. Tues Oct 4, 1983 pp 1, 5.

Chuck Hempel Personal Communication Jan 26, 1984.

Ed. "Pennsylvania Accident" D.C. Spoloograph 39:10 Oct, 1983.

Newsclippings in Devil's Advocate (Diablo Grotto) 16:1 1 Nov, 1983.


The coroner pronounced the cause of death to be "congestive heart failure due to irreversible shock. ' ' A heart attack "brought on by physical stress and pressure on his chest after 29 hours underground." The 'stress was cited as due to cold and fear as well as compression. The coroner also said that the man's epilepsy was not a factor.

So here is a victim, only 75 feet from the entrance, in an a narrow crevice, yet accessible from above and below, being kept warm, given food and drink with vital signs monitored, yet he dies. To the rescuers it was his attitude, his state of panic and angry irrationality that hindered them. To an outside observer it might seem that lack of permission for sedation was the key factor, Perhaps the rescuers should have gone ahead with somewhat painful methods and accepted a few contusions and abrasions as the price of successful extrication. Perhaps they were too humane. Yet they thought they had a stable victim who in time could be extricated in spite of himself. 11 is certainly a sad set of circumstances.

The only criticism I can think of is the choice of food and drink. Solid food might be difficult to swallow in a prone position and be inhaled instead, resulting in suffocation. Also, coffee, unless decattinated, is a stimulant-just the wrong thing for an excitable victim such as Scott,

A word about the victim's seemingly strange state of mind. I believe rescuers should always look for strange attitudes and irrationality in trapped victims. Claustrophobia tends to disappear in active cavers so we forget about it. Yet if anything might cause it to surface, it would be physical entrapment-constriction of the chest, the stifling of your breathing, tons or rock ready to crush you.