Though Far Different than Thailand, St. Paul Caves Pose Their Own Danger

July 11, 2018 05:51 PM

The video above originally ran last November

The world looked on nervously this past week as rescue workers in Thailand attempted to free 12 members of a boys soccer team and their coach trapped for more than two weeks 2.5 miles inside the Than Luang Cave system.


Those efforts reached a successful conclusion Tuesday when the last members of the team and their coach were freed, 18 days after they were first stranded in a cave on June 23.

An international team of 90 divers were working to free those trapped, successfully racing against time before heavy rains again filled the caves with water.

RELATED: 12 Boys, Coach Rescued from Thai Cave Site

The St. Paul Fire Department has had its own experience with cave rescues over the years when trespassers have gotten stuck inside some of the around 50 manmade, sandstone caves located in the bluffs along the Mississippi River. 

In November of last year, firefighters rescued two teenagers who went cave crawling and got stuck, a rescue operation that took two-and-a-half hours. Then later that same month, a rescue operation had to be launched after eight individuals defied a city public works employee and entered one of the caves.

A specialized team of firefighters climbed a 150-foot hill to reach the teens, and used a rope and ladder system to retrieve them. 

Back in August 2014, another teenager was trapped overnight before he too was brought out safely.

RELATED: 8 Rescued from St. Paul Cave after Reportedly Entering Despite Warning

But deputy fire chief Stacy Hohertz said the department has never had to undertake a rescue operation measured in days or weeks, not hours.

"That's just not something we've had to deal with," she said. "Usually, when we've had to do a rescue, it's because someone went in and thought they would use the flashlight on their phone or something like that.

"And then the battery died and they find themselves in a situation without any light."

RELATED: Authorities in St. Paul Plan to Install Deterrents after Teens Rescued from Caves

But that's not to say the St. Paul caves aren't dangerous. Two 17-year-old girls died there in 1992, and three teenagers died when they were overcome by deadly carbon monoxide fumes after becoming trapped in 2004. After that tragedy, authorities worked to seal dozens of entrances to the caves and posted warning signs.

"We don't want people in there," Hohertz said. "It can be extremely dangerous. It's a coordinated effort between the Park and Rec department and ourselves. If they notice a place where someone has been able to access the caves, we send in a crew. We'll do a survey to make sure no one is still in there. And then we close it off.

"It's not an area where we want anyone to be." 

Greg Brick, a research analyst for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, is a cave expert and the author of books like “Subterranean Twin Cities.”

RELATED: Still No Permanent Fix for St. Paul Caves (2004)

He said the St. Paul caves are far different than the system in which the soccer team in Thailand was stranded.

"The length of a typical St. Paul cave is several hundred feet whereas that system in Thailand is six miles long," he said. 

"That area is historically known as Mushroom Alley because they were once used for growing mushrooms. The area along Plato Boulevard makes up half of it, and the other half is along Water Street. But they're all above river level. I've never seen river water filling up any of the mushroom caves."

He said a far more analogous comparison would be some of the caves found in Fillmore County in southeastern Minnesota.

"An example like the Holy Grail Cave, that one does flood," Brick said. "And water can stay in there for many weeks. That's what they were looking at in Thailand. The water got into those loops and it was almost like a sink trap."

Mark White, the park manager of  Forestville Mystery Cave State Park, located near Spring Valley in Fillmore County, said park staff have gone through cave rescue training.

But he said they have not been called on to undertake a rescue in recent years.

"One of the reasons we don't have a lot of rescues is because we're very cautious about access," he said of the park's 13-mile system. "The general public can only get in on guided tours in just a small portion of the system. There are select people whom we allow more access. But we've never had anybody in the caves during a flood.

"We have had overdue cavers, or people who have gotten stuck. But in general, they've been people who have been pretty competent when it comes to navigating the caves. And they've self-extricated or found their own way out. We've scrambled a few times, but we've really had minimal problems."

White said in the event a major rescue operation was needed, park officials also maintain a call list of other agencies and individuals with expertise. 

Meanwhile, Brick said the smaller St. Paul caves can be dangerous enough for people who don't know what they're doing.

"I think enough people have died over the years to prove that," he said.


Frank Rajkowski

Copyright 2018 - KSTP-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company


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