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The Astonishment, Danger, and Tragedy of Caves and Caverns

Monday 16 July 2018 at 6:53 pm.

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeard in IMAGES for July 12, 2018, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Had there been caves in Dime Box where my brother and I grew up, I’m sure we would have tried to explore them; we explored everything else in the pastures, cedar brakes, and along the creeks and streams in our part of the County. I even got lost once in a heavy wooded area, with the whole town searching for me, yet this was nothing compared to getting trapped in a maze of underground caves with the water rising.

            Most of us have been on edge this week reading and watching reports on the twelve boys of a soccer team and their coach, trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rai Province. We felt that our prayers were answered when the British divers found the boys and their coach alive on a ridge of the cave above the rising waters. But finding them was just the beginning.

            Over a thousand folks, including navy seals, were involved in operations to rescue the thirteen, one former seal losing his life during the rescue work. Seeing pictures of the small openings, complex tunnels, and long distances of underwater swimming was chilling, and we rejoiced as the first group of four was rescued and then the second group of four, and finally when the remaining four boys and their coach were rescued!

            As a parent and a grandparent, my heart went out to the parents, grandparents, and friends of these Thai children whose lives were in danger, and who must have been suffering greatly from their ordeal. As a parent and a grandparent, I can only imagine how much the boys’ parents and other family members suffered as they waited for news from the rescue crews who risked their lives to save the lives of those entrapped in the cave.

            There are caves like this all over the world, the largest of them being Hang Son Doong in Vietnam, having its own river, jungle and climate, and Mammoth Cave underneath South-central Kentucky, with 400 miles of explored passages, and no telling how many miles of unexplored areas. Nothing seems more terrifying than the exploration of these enormous caves and caverns. Yet it is part of human nature to want to explore the unknown, especially if you can discover stunning calcite formations, such as spectacular stalactites and stalagmites (keeping in mind there is no light in a deep cave other than what you bring).

            While Dime Box had no caves or caverns, there were plenty located in Texas, some not all that far from where we lived, -- I just didn’t know they existed or get to see them until I was an adult. I was in my twenties when I first explored, by means of a guided tour, the magnificent Caverns of Sonora in Sonora, Texas, with the most stunning calcite crystal formations you could ever see. On a guided tour of the explored part of the caverns, there was no danger, only astonishment; and I had no desire to explore the unexplored sections.

            I was married and in my thirties when my family and I took a guided tour of the Inner Space Cavern in Georgetown, Texas. I can’t remember if we walked all of the 1.2 miles of passages in that cave or not, but we saw a lot of it. The amazing thing is that the cave was not discovered until 1963, along with evidence of prehistoric animal life. To think that those huge underground spaces were there all the time, and we didn’t know it! 

            Having walked the already explored and lighted passageways of these caves and caverns in Texas, as well as Carlsbad in New Mexico, I have an incredible amount of respect for the dangers involved in caving, that is, spelunking (as it is called in the United States and Canada), or potholing (as it is called in the UK and Ireland) in caves that have never been explored before! What bravery it takes to do that, though I think the Georgetown cavern was discovered quite by accident, by the Texas Highway Department core drilling team, as the Highway Department prepared to build an overpass. 

            What bravery it took to face and endure entrapment, not knowing whether anyone would ever find you or not in the vast and endless Thailand cave! How tragic to lose one of the rescue workers who lost his life to save others! What a blessing that all thirteen trapped were eventually rescued!


Ray Spitzenberger is a retired college speech and English teacher and a retired Lutheran pastor.

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