Rescued: 600 feet below ground, critically injured Dwight Kempf waited for salvation

Rescued: 600 feet below ground, critically injured Dwight Kempf waited for salvation

June 1st, 2013 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Erlanger Health System emergency room nurse and certified cave rescue team member Danielle Baasch, right, hugs Jill Kempf, wife of Dwight Kempf, during a news conference Friday at the hospital in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by Doug Strickland/Times Free Press.

HOW TO HELP

Instead of gifts to her or her family, Jill Kempf asks that those who wish to help donate to the National Speleological Society at www.caves.org to support cave rescue teams.

"If you wrote a book of what to do from the time a person gets injured to when they get out, it followed that perfectly," she said of this week's rescue. "There were no glitches."

RESCUE BY THE NUMBERS

• 3,000 feet of rope used

• 2,000 pounds of gear needed

• 106 volunteers

Ellison's Cave features the deepest known cave pit in the continental United States, dropping 586 feet straight down.

Photo by WRCB-TV Channel 3 /Times Free Press.

From the Fantastic Pit entrance, at the mouth of Ellison's Cave on Pigeon Mountain, the voice on the other line stayed calm.

Six hundred feet below, Troy Fuqua said, a man had fallen. He was injured. He needed help.

"We can't reach him," Fuqua told a Walker County dispatcher Sunday evening.

Fuqua, of Madison, Ala., and another man tried to lead six experienced cavers through Ellison's. The group came from Pennsylvania, and some of them had explored the cave before.

They split into two teams. Four of them would enter near the Fantastic Pit, rappel down the 586-foot drop, travel to the other side of the cave and climb the 440-foot Incredible Pit.

Fuqua and his team of three cavers would explore the same course, but in the opposite direction, starting near the Incredible Pit. They expected to finish after 14 hours.

Somewhere at the bottom of the cave, the two teams crossed paths. But then, around 4 p.m., just past an area called the Popcorn Passage, Fuqua heard a crash about 70 feet behind him. Then he heard gravel tumble.

Then, silence.

"Dwight!" the other cavers yelled.

But Dwight Kempf, 54, didn't respond. He had tripped on a slope and fallen about 40 feet. His femur was shattered, his skull cracked. He was unconscious.

In the dark, nobody could find him. The other two cavers searched, and Fuqua retreated from the cave. Two and a half hours later, he called 911.

He knew what was needed. Activate a cave rescue, he told the dispatcher. Tell a unit to report to the campground at Blue Hole Road. Bring as many teams as you can.

"We need everybody," he said, his voice as calm as it would be if he were ordering take-out.

About 18 hours later, a rescue team pulled Kempf out of the cave. And six days later, Kempf remained at Erlanger hospital, sedated but stable.

Doctors and family credit Kempf's survival to the calmness and expertise of everyone involved -- the rescue teams, the paramedics and the cavers.

•••

Around 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Jill Kempf sat in her home near Allentown, Pa. Just back from a hike with her daughter, she checked Facebook to see whether her husband had finished caving.

She saw a post from the other team. They had exited the cave, and everyone was fine. But then she read another post, one that said someone should contact Jill.

She didn't know what the post was about, but she felt nervous.

Finally, a phone call.

Dwight slipped and fell, said Dutch Sanders, who explored the cave with the other group. He couldn't say whether Dwight was alive.

Sanders and Dwight Kempf had traveled through Ellison's together at least once before, in November 2011. Jill Kempf said her husband had gone there four, maybe five times.

Dwight Kempf, a financial analyst, loves the outdoors and adventure. Hiking, rocking climbing, kayaking -- he loves it all. Caving, too.

"They come out looking like Mud Men," Jill Kempf said. "I think there's certain pleasure in that."

On Sunday night, though, there was no way to reach him, or anyone else in the cave. Those men were alone, and so was she.

Waiting for more news, she logged on to Facebook and typed a message. If you're the praying kind, please pray.

•••

Before Sunday, Danielle Baasch had never been inside Ellison's Cave. An emergency room nurse and experienced caver, she knew about the Fantastic Pit and the famed 586-foot drop, one of the largest in the world. But she hadn't been inside, not until she followed the other members of the initial response team.

They knew the general area where Kempf fell. But they didn't know precisely where he was, so they yelled out until they heard a response. Baasch wasn't sure what was next.

"Is he alive?" she said. "Is he not?"

Soon they heard Kempf talking. It was about 11 p.m., seven hours after the fall, and he had regained consciousness.

Rocks had ripped open Kempf's upper left leg and part of his forehead. To stop the bleeding, one of the cavers wrapped an Ace bandage around Kempf's leg and pressed on the wound.

Still, by the time the initial response team arrived, Kempf had lost about two liters of blood. Baasch and paramedic Andrew Voss gave Kempf fluid and medicine, and they requested a unit -- or about half a liter -- of blood to be flown in from Erlanger.

His blood pressure was falling, and they needed to stabilize him.

For a nurse, a cave is a challenging arena. Everything is dirty. Everything is wet. And everyone is cold.

Two years ago, in the Warm Up Pit inside Ellison's Cave, two University of Florida students got stuck in a waterfall when their ropes tangled. They died of hypothermia.

On Sunday, Baasch said, she and Voss stayed near Kempf to make sure he was OK.

"Then," she said, "we just kind of hunkered down and waited."

Finally, around 1 a.m., someone from Baasch's team got out of the cave and relayed a message.

Kempf was alive, and he needed blood.

•••

About eight hours after first hearing her husband was in trouble, Jill Kempf had not received any updates. She wanted to avoid the news, but she couldn't help herself. She kept looking for updates, good or bad. Anything.

She tried to sleep, but it was no use.

"It felt like my heart was pumping out of my chest," she said.

She packed a bag. She was ready to go, just in case.

Jill and Dwight have been married for 31 years. They met as freshmen at Penn State. Jill's friend had a crush on Dwight's roommate, and the four of them started hanging out.

On Sunday and into Monday morning, Jill tried to avoid thinking about what might have happened to Dwight. She tried to stay positive. If something bad -- really bad, life-changing bad -- happened, well, she would cross that bridge when she got there.

Around 4 a.m. Monday, Jill said, she received another phone call. Her husband was alive.

She called one of her two daughters, the one who wasn't home with her. Then she booked a flight to Atlanta.

•••

Inside the cave, at the bottom of the Fantastic Pit, Baasch watched as a group of about 15 people hauled Kempf toward the top.

"This pit is huge," she said. "It's massive. It was pretty incredible."

Hours after her team found Kempf, they received the blood they needed. Voss, the paramedic, created a makeshift splint by sliding a board behind Kempf and wrapping webbing around his leg.

A traditional splint wouldn't do because a traditional splint leaves your leg stiff, and they needed to bend Kempf's knee to squeeze him through the tight spots where able-bodied cavers crawl.

Before they carried him, they sedated him through an IV. At a time like this, Baasch said, a conscious patient can become panicked.

As Baasch's team carried Kempf to the Fantastic Pit on Monday morning, several rested teams waited to help.

After Fuqua's call, 106 volunteers reported to Pigeon Mountain. From Walker County and Hamilton County, they came. And from Atlanta, Nashville, Knoxville and Huntsville, Ala. One person even flew in from Colorado.

Some organized the plans and the people. Some waited by the cave's entrance. Some just cooked food at the campground for those who had worked for hours and hours.

Others rigged ropes and systems to carry Kempf home.

Once Kempf reached the top of the Fantastic Pit, two groups waited to carry him and pull him through a passageway and to the bottom of a 120-foot pit, the last obstacle to the cave's entrance.

•••

When Jill Kempf touched down at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport around noon Monday, two cavers were waiting. She didn't know if Dwight would be all right. Neither did they.

But as they drove away from the airport, one of the men received a call. Dwight would be out of the cave soon, about 22 hours after his fall.

Jill Kempf arrived at the emergency room of Erlanger around 2:30 p.m. Doctors told her about his injuries, and what to expect. They told her he was unconscious and dirty and bruised and battered.

But Jill Kempf, who has slept in the waiting room every night this week, said Dwight always is dirty when he finishes caving.

Before she checked on her husband, she looked at the two men who drove her to the hospital. It had been about 32 hours since they first gathered Sunday at the base of Pigeon Mountain.

Go home, she said. Go home and get some rest.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

About this story: The details of what unfolded inside Ellison's Cave on Sunday and Monday were gathered through interviews with Walker County Coordinator David Ashburn and members of the rescue team as well as firsthand accounts written and posted online.