Teen Rescued After Falling Deep into Minn. Cave

Aug. 17--A 19-year-old man sent a desperate text message to a friend while his cellphone still worked: He'd fallen and was trapped deep in a cave near St. Paul's High Bridge.

Firefighters got word about 12:45 a.m. Sunday and the search along the Mississippi River bluffs. In the dark, treacherous terrain about 200 feet from a street below, firefighters from St. Paul and Minneapolis' advanced tactical-rescue teams got the teen out at about 5 a.m., said St. Paul Fire Marshal Steve Zaccard.

The man fell about 20 feet down a shaft and was roughly 300 feet into the cave, Zaccard said. The cave is "vertical for awhile and then curves about 60 degrees to the horizontal and then back several hundred feet," Zaccard said.

The teen was pale and shaken but could walk and talk, Zaccard said. He was taken to Regions Hospital with minor injuries, Zaccard said. Firefighters searched until about 8 a.m. to be sure no one else was trapped inside.

The cave is in Lilydale Regional Park, west of the High Bridge and about 200 feet up from Water Street, Zaccard said.

"Imagine this at night," Zaccard said Sunday morning. "You see the vegetation and the steep cliff. This was pitch-black for most of the time we've been here."

Firefighters didn't know where the man was until they got maps from St. Paul Parks and Recreation to pinpoint the cave's opening, Zaccard said. Using ropes and harnesses, "a rescuer went down in the opening and was able to make verbal contact with him, so then came the arduous task of extricating him from there," the fire marshal said.

The man, whom firefighters didn't identify, had told his parents he was going to the caves, Zaccard said.

Zaccard said the teen had been at the cave with friends, but they left or became separated -- he wasn't certain of the circumstances.

An unattended car was parked near the victim's, so firefighters were concerned someone else was trapped -- "someone he didn't know about or he was confused and didn't tell us about," Zaccard said. Crews searched the entire 300-feet-deep cave.

There'd been a campfire in the cave, leaving smoke and elevated levels of carbon monoxide, Zaccard said.

"That's one of the things that makes these caves so dangerous and deadly is they have campfires, and then the lack of oxygen creates a lot of carbon monoxide," he said. "Carbon monoxide is the silent killer. It's odorless, colorless. Oftentimes, by the time you realize you're being affected it's too late for you to do anything about it."

Five teens have died in St.

Paul caves in the past 22 years, Zaccard said. Three died in 2004 and two in 1992, all overcome by carbon monoxide.

Firefighters during Sunday's rescue wore self-contained breathing apparatuses and air-quality monitors.

The young man was "lucky we were able to get to him as soon as we did, when we did and we're grateful for that," Zaccard said.

Lilydale Regional Park's fossil grounds and brickyard area, about 50 acres of the park's 184 acres, remain closed after two boys were killed in a landslide in May 2013. The part of the park where the man was rescued Sunday is in the open area.

Mara H. Gottfried can be reached at 651-228-5262. Follow her at twitter.com/MaraGottfried.

Copyright 2014 - Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn.

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