Incident Report: By Dave Shurtz, Caver, Member Wasatch Grotto NSS – 5 August 2009
Flash flood trapping scouting group in Big Brush Creek Cave (BBCC), Utah, on June 27, 2009
Things leading to the incident:
Vance Cook and Raymon Chadburn work together. Vance Cook is a young men’s venture scout leader in his church. Raymon is the son of Carol Chadburn (Shurtz) who was heavily involved as a caver in the Wasatch Grotto and the Utah Cave Search and Rescue for many years. Incidentally, she is also the sister of Dave Shurtz of the Wasatch Grotto. Ray (Raymon goes by Ray) had personally explored in BBCC and many other caves over the years. Ray had also taken Vance’s scout group caving previously.
Ray and Vance decided to take the scouts caving again and decided on some of the bigger caves located in the Vernal and Manila areas of Utah. Ray, being the good caver that he is decided to do some research. He called the Ashley National Forest seeking permission to take the boys to Sheep Creek Cave. They informed him that Sheep Creek was not enterable at this time as the gate and lock were not functional. As an alternative plan they decided to go to BBCC instead.
Knowing that the cave had flooded in the distant past, and wanting to make sure the trip would be safe for the scouts, Ray attempted to gather as much information as possible on the cave. He asked several people about the cave and did an extensive search on the internet to gather as much information as possible. Ray also took the time to look up most of the Grotto web sites and bulletin boards to see if there were any warnings posted for the Brush Creek Caves. Ray knew that LBCC was out of the question as that cave is often and suddenly flood prone. He also knew that BBCC had a cave above it somewhere that usually takes any extra run-off and that in recent years even during the snow runoff no water has made it into BBCC. Having been in the BBCC several times before, as early as May, and never having seen water going into the cave, he came to the conclusion that there was no danger of flooding. Ray He also was unable to find any i ndication on any caving web site of potential problems. The decision was made and preparations were set in motion.
The Trip and initial findings:
They left early and arrived at the cave about 12:30 PM. As they were arriving, they were met by about 20 girl scouts and their leaders who were in the entrance of the cave. I didn't appear that most of the Girl Scout group had gone into the cave but a small group of 4 or so girls had just returned from deeper inside the cave as Ray's group arrived. Ray's group had 10 boys and 9 leaders. Two leaders and two boys decided to stay out at the entrance.
Ray took a short recon trip to make sure the cave was dry and safe to enter. He indicated that earlier, there had been some drizzly rain but that it seemed to have cleared up by the time they arrived at the cave. He returned to tell them that all was as expected. The cave was bone dry and looked as though it hadn't had any water flow into it recently. They entered the cave, preceded through the first two rooms and into the log jam. From there they went through a short distance of stoop walk and then down a near belly crawl which opened up at the top of a short drop off. Here they decided that the boys should not proceed further and after looking around they headed out.
They got through the belly crawl and as they started up the stoop-walk section Ray said he heard what sounded like a slight trickle or maybe something falling. Then it became obvious that it was running water and within seconds the sound became so loud that they had to yell to communicate. Not knowing how much water was coming they got everyone as high up the passage wall as possible and waited for the inevitable hoping that it wasn't the end. When the initial wall of water hit it was around 2 feet deep but moving fast and loud, making communication nearly impossible. As soon as the water stabilized a little they dropped down from where they were clinging and moved as quickly as possible up and towards the left where the cave was a bit higher, hoping to find a higher location that might be safe.
The water was quickly rising and in a matter of minutes was waist deep and flowing through the tunnel with tremendous speed. In a few minutes they were able to get the boys through about 100 yards of passage to a spot up and to the left that was above the main flow. After getting the boys safely positioned, Ray went to the log jam to evaluate the possibility of getting out and decided it was too dangerous and possibly impossible at the moment. He went back to the boys and helped get the remaining leaders of the group to the "safe" location. Once everyone was there, they took inventory and found that they had lost one of the boys in the confusion. Ray and 3 of the leaders immediately started searching for him.
During the search Ray ventured back to where they had first been when the water hit them and saw that the 9 or 10 foot tall section of passage had so much water going through it that there were only a few inches of air space at the top. Further down it looked to be completely submerged. They searched every piece of tunnel that was not full of water and that was big enough that a boy might have gone into it. After nearly an hour of desperate searching they came to the conclusion that he had either been washed away or had attempted to get out.
Ray went to the log jam expecting that the boy might have tried to get out as the flood began. He feared that he might find the drowned body trapped in one of the sections of log jam somewhere. By this time the water level, though high, had stabilized so investigating the log jam was a bit safer than before. With each section of the log jam Ray searched he kept saying to himself, "I need to make sure his body is not caught in this next obstacle." After a couple of scary moments in his attempt to find the boy, Ray found a way out through the raging water and was able to exit the log jam. The main entrance cavern of the cave was so full of mist from the large river that it made it hard to see anything. There was a flow of water about 12 or 14 feet across and 2 to 3 feet deep flowing into the cave.
Upon reaching the entrance Ray, to his great joy, found the missing boy who was with the other leaders. He had managed to climb through the log jam while the water was still a bit lower right at the first. Apparently, while the rest of the group was recovering from the initial shock and confusion and searching for a safe location, he had forged forward and made it out of the cave. After verifying the identity of the boy Ray told them to make sure no one else tried to come in the cave after them. He then went back in to tell the rest of the group that the boy was safe and to see if it was going to be possible to get the group out.
After evaluating the log jam section and coming up with a plan, they carefully placed adults at key locations and fed the boys through one at a time until they had all exited the log jam. With much relief they were through the worst of it and headed for the entrance were there was a happy reunion with those waiting. They found out that those who had not gone in the cave with them had seen the flood coming and were sure that all those in the cave were dead. As a result they had sent immediately for help. As the tired group exited the canyon they met the Sheriffs Deputies who were on their way down to the cave. After telling the story to the Sherriff, they left the area glad to be alive.
After calming down and finding all were ok, they decided to try and find out what had happened. They made a series of calls to the geologist, hydrologist and water commissioner for the Brush Creek area as well as the Forest Service and found out that a whole series of unusual events had led to this unfortunate accident. They are as follows:
- First – It had been raining fairly steadily in June and had gradually saturated the surrounding areas including the 24 square mile charge area which is drained by the Brush Creek streams.
- Second – The Oak Park Reservoir which collects and controls water from this discharge area gradually filled up to maximum and continued to fill even with the regular releasing of water through the pipe system used for transporting irrigation water from this reservoir.
- Third – There had been a flood recorded on an earlier date where many hundreds of CFS (cubic feet per second) of water overflowed the spillway and carried many logs, rocks and debris into the mouth of Capture Cave partially blocking off the pathway of the water into that cave. This is according to the water people that deal with that drainage.
- Fourth - There continued to be light rain for the week preceding the event. This kept the reservoir at maximum without overflowing.
- Fifth – There was a significant rain which put down 1.2 to 1.3 inches of water in a very short time just before they arrived. This charged the drainage system and reservoir beyond capacity and timed the overflow of the spillway to allow the girl scouts time to exit and to perfectly trap the boy scouts as they began to exit the cave. (see the accompanying pictures taken by the water commissioner that day)
- 1. Raymond Chadburn as the responsible caver for the party did everything that he could have to assure that all was well with the planned cave trip.
- 2. All managing parties and agencies provided what they believed to be correct and adequate information to the prospective cave group. This would include the Forest Service, the water commission people and the Caving Community.
- 3. The near fatal accident resulted as a series of uncontrollable events that were difficult to predict and impossible to prevent, and were unfortunately timed with “Murphy Like” misfortune which cause this thing to happen.
- 4. It would be wise to avoid caving in such flood prone caves after a period of heavy precipitation, even if they rarely do actually flood like BBCC.
What can be done in the future to help predict and prevent another such occurrence? (Disclaimer – These are my opinions and are given merely to stimulate thought and to encourage the experts to get to gather and come up with workable solutions.)
- 1. The local caving Grottos (or clubs) of the NSS (National Speleological Society) should post warnings on their web sites about the potential dangers of caves such as BBCC and LBCC. Phone numbers could be given for prospective cave groups to call for current weather and hydrological information concerning those caves.
- 2. The Government Agencies involved could add warnings as standard practice to all who call concerning these caves and could be a source of information and numbers for those groups to call for weather and hydrological information and updates.
- 3. It would be nice if a way could be found to place a warning at the cave entrances without bringing liability on managing groups.
- 4. It would be amazing if a system could be developed where the water commissioner could easily give the Grottos and Agencies a heads up when things are dangerous for such caving trips.
I hope that this is helpful to all who read it. This document, in no way, is aimed at placing blame or saying that anyone or any group has done anything incorrectly. I believe the system is working well, but I also believe it could be improved. If you have questions or would like to talk to the author, please call Dave at 801-682-0860.
Note: The following phone numbers may be helpful:
- Verlin Vincent – Brush Creek Water Commissioner – 435-789-1763 (Use this one for LBCC & BBCC)
- Laris Hunting – Ashley Creek River Commissioner– 435-828-1650
- Ashley Water Conservancy - 435-789-1651