First Responders Describe Cave Rescues in Saint Paul

By Ed Rutkowski

Minneapolis Convention Center (May 22, 2019)—Since the 1980s, eight people have died in a complex system of artificial caves on the banks of the Mississippi River in Saint Paul, Minn. This morning at AIHce EXP 2019, two firefighters from Saint Paul shared what their department has learned from participating in cave rescues and described improvements that have led to several successful rescues in recent years.

Constructed by hand in the late 1800s and carved out of limestone, the caves were originally used for storage. Today, a few of the larger caves are ventilated and used for events such as weddings, but most aren’t maintained, and they present a number of confined-space hazards to people who wander into the cave system and the responders sent to rescue them. An irresistible draw to certain teenagers, the caves have inspired a community of enthusiasts to share information and videos online about their explorations. In many cases, cave entrances are so narrow that egress is nearly impossible if something goes wrong.

According to Tom McDonough, deputy chief of training for the Saint Paul Fire Department with 35 years of firefighting experience, eliminating the cave hazard has proven impossible. The department has filled in caves with dirt and debris. In 2004, following the deaths of three teens from carbon monoxide poisoning, an incident that attracted national attention, the department poured concrete over many entrances. But cavers found other ways inside, often by simply digging through the soft limestone around the concrete caps.

“We’ve tried almost everything, with very little luck,” McDonough said.

During the 2004 incident, rescuers measured CO at 200 parts per million at the cave entrance. The opening was so small the rescuers couldn’t put on their SCBAs until they reached a larger opening inside the cave. Here as elsewhere in the cave system, the ground was sand, which significantly increased the difficulty of removing the victims. Visibility was virtually zero. “If you forgot your flashlight, you were completely out of luck,” McDonough said. The cave’s configuration presented additional challenges, with branches going off in many directions—one reason why SPFD rescue squads keep on hand approximately 700 feet of clothesline, which they trail behind them like bread crumbs as they move through the caves. The SCBAs provided only 30 minutes of life support, which became an issue when several rescuers ignored low oxygen readings and had to be ordered out of the cave. Such dedication to their jobs, even to the point of placing themselves in danger, is a common trait among rescuers, according to McDonough. “It’s something we’ve learned to expect over the years,” he said. The victims were found 600 feet inside the caves, where CO readings were above 700 ppm.

McDonough’s colleague, Mike Aspnes, who captains an SPFD rescue squad, discussed an incident in 2017 in which two teenagers got stuck 100 feet below the surface when the rope ladder they had used to enter the cave broke. A third teen who had stayed at the surface called police, who contacted the SPFD. Rescuers had to squeeze through a sixteen-by-eighteen-inch opening, shimmy down eight feet, then execute a 90-degree turn to access a clearing just large enough for them to put on their SCBAs, which were lowered down after them. Given the severe space constraints, only four rescuers could enter the cave; typical rescues involve teams of ten or twelve. “It was by far the most challenging cave rescue I’ve been a part of,” Aspnes said. Fortunately for the teenagers, this rescue had a happy ending.

Before rescuers get very far in the cave system, communication becomes extremely challenging. SPFD’s hardwired phone system is only 300 feet long, and its wireless radios can’t penetrate the sandstone. Every 50 to 100 feet, one team member with a radio stays behind so daisy-chained communications can be relayed from the surface to the rescuers and back again. “Reduced oxygen is the biggest problem we tend to run into,” Aspnes said; ventilation is difficult or impossible to provide, given the length of most caves.

History shows that SPFD will need to put their skills to use for the foreseeable future. Despite the dangers, or perhaps because of them, teenagers will again enter the caves, become trapped, and need to be rescued. As Aspnes said, “Their risk-benefit analysis isn’t as tooled up as yours and mine.”

Ed Rutkowski is editor in chief of The Synergist.

View more Synergist coverage of the conference on the AIHce Daily page.