The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.
Gary Lutes had recalled the words of the 23rd Psalm more than once in his life. The 37-year-old Tampa land surveyor had called on God when his wife, Linda, died of breast cancer 4½ years before. Now he was beseeching Him again, begging to be delivered from the darkness that had closed in around him and his two young sons. Trapped for five days in the chill depths of West Virginia’s New Trout Cave, tormented by hunger and thirst, they had finally lain down on the cave floor together. “Yes, we lay down to die, so to speak,” recalls Lutes. “We were just so tired, so exhausted. We felt like we’d fought as long as we could and we were ready to rest.”
Lutes, a 20-year caving veteran, had initialed his sons, Gary Jr. (“Buddy”), 13, and Tim, 9, into the sport just a year before in caves located some three miles south of Franklin, W.Va. On Sunday, June 17, he and the boys set up camp in the Smoke Hole recreation area, and the next day they drove 20 miles to New Trout Cave, a limestone cave Lutes had previously explored that extends horizontally 200 feet beneath the peak of a dome-like hill. At the mouth of the cave the three put on gloves, kneepads and hard hats fitted with carbide lamps for the lightless world within.
Forty-five minutes later they had gone about 1,000 feet and entered New Trout’s Big Room, a 50-foot opening with a ceiling as high as 20 feet. Lutes and the boys consumed a few mouthfuls of trail food that he had packed in a shoulder bag, then proceeded to the cave’s most formidable challenge, a tangle of tunnels known as the Maze. The labyrinth, created millions of years ago by water swirling through faults, is honeycombed with ledges, corridors and tight passages. Tim was leading, when the three came to an eight-foot drop-off through sharp rocks. “Man, I do not want to hassle with this pack snagging on every little rock,” Lutes recalls thinking. Then, violating a basic tenet of caving, he decided to leave behind the bag, with its emergency supply of water, food, fuel, cigarette lighter and a candle. He and the boys had relit their lamps (using carbide, which when mixed with water generates the flammable acetylene) only 10 minutes before, so Lutes estimated they had half an hour before they would have to return.
Ten minutes later—and 200 feet deeper into the cave—however, Tim’s light began to dim. Lutes and the boys turned around immediately, but hadn’t gone another 20 feet before the lamp winked out. “To this day, I don’t know why,” says Lutes, who at that point took over the lead. “I remember I was concerned with [Tim and Buddy] keeping up, and at the same time I was trying to visualize the footsteps we had taken to get there.” Only two or three minutes later, Buddy’s lamp began to flicker. “My adrenaline started pumping pretty hard,” says Lutes. Then Buddy’s light also went dark. Lutes considered leaving the boys while he made his way back to the emergency pack, but decided against it for fear his light would fail and he would be unable to return to them. Crawling and stooping, the three hurried on. “Dad looked nervous,” recalls Buddy. “I could tell we were lost. He was moving too fast, jerking his head back and forth.”
Lutes, who ordinarily doesn’t perspire much, began dripping sweat. “It was like I’d gone swimming,” he recalls. He tried to take control of his fear. “I thought to myself, ‘I can’t let this happen. If we’re going to have to sit it out and wait to be rescued, I’m going to need the water in my body.’ I kept thinking, ‘I gotta calm down. I can’t let this happen.’ ”
Sensing their father’s anxiety, the boys began to panic. “Dad, let’s get out of here,” they pleaded. “We want to get out of here.” Then, point-blank, they asked, “Dad, are you lost?” For the first time in Lutes’s caving experience, the tunnels all seemed terrifyingly unfamiliar. But he tried to reassure them. “No, I’m not lost. I just don’t remember these landmarks.” A couple of times he started down a passage, only to turn back. Still, he guessed he had 20 minutes of carbide left. Then his lamp, too, went out.
Plunged in utter darkness, the three went numb. “Nobody really said much of anything other than the kids asking, ‘Are we gonna get out of here? Are we gonna get out of here?’ ” Lutes recalls. “I said, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna get out. I just gotta think.’ ” For two hours Lutes weighed the options. He thought of trying to crawl out with the boys clinging to his feet, but “I realized I couldn’t even find my way to the pack with a light,” Lutes admits. “How was I going to do it in total darkness?”
Since Lutes’s light had failed in an area of treacherous six- to eight-foot drops, he decided to get himself and his boys to a safer place. Sifting through the spent carbide in the three hard hats, he succeeded in gathering about a teaspoonful of unused pellets. Wetting the carbide with his own urine, standard emergency procedure, he ignited a lamp. Then he hustled the boys into an opening about 50 feet long and 20 to 30 feet wide. In the center there was a large rock on which they could almost stand. They had a moment to scan the room when Lutes’s lamp—and the world around them—went black once more.
With the darkness came a sense of foreboding, and time, marked by luminous dials, passed with excruciating slowness. “We kept looking at our watches every 10 minutes,” says Buddy. Seated on their kneepads to insulate themselves from the cold rock, the three huddled together to conserve body heat. But soon they were shivering in the damp, 54°F air. As lunch-time passed, then dinnertime, they talked about the cooler full of hoagie fixings back in the truck parked just 60 feet from the mouth of the cave and the marshmallows they had planned to toast over the camp-fire. “By the first night our mouths were feeling dry, like cotton,” says Lutes. “I would have given anything for that canteen of water.” At about 9:30, bats began making squeaking noises and fluttering around the intruders. “I guess they were checking us out,” says Lutes.
Within 24 hours, their growing weakness ended any thought of crawling out. They couldn’t stand without becoming dizzy. “Your head would spin like you were on a merry-go-round,” says Lutes. He methodically assessed their predicament. The boys’ maternal grandparents were expecting them near Richmond, Va., but not until Thursday night, and other cavers were unlikely to visit New Trout before the weekend. Even if police spotted their truck and sent help, Lutes figured they would be pinned down for at least two days.
But the only sound they heard was the beating of bat wings. By the third day the Luteses were tormented as much by the enclosing darkness as by their hunger. “You couldn’t see your hand an inch in front of your face,” says Lutes. “Your eyes don’t adjust, either. There’s nothing for them to pick up on. It was really hard to bear up without light.” He recalls the boys saying, “Here we are, the three of us so close together, and we can’t even see each other.” They dozed off for brief periods, sometimes weeping. Hunger gnawed at their bellies, and Tim began retching. Magnesium dioxide dust—from saltpeter mining in the cave more than a century and a half before—filled their mouths and clogged their throats. Lutes and Buddy coughed incessantly. “Hundreds of times I told the boys I was sorry,” says Lutes, his voice breaking. “They kept reassuring me that it wasn’t my fault, that they wanted to be there as much as I did, and no matter what happened they still loved me.” Though not regular churchgoers, Lutes and his sons had read the Bible at home. Now they all prayed together.
It was on the third day that Lutes began to think he was dying. He felt a pain in his chest, and he started seeing flashes of light. “I told the boys, ‘There may come a time when one of us is going to go first. If by some chance that happens to be me, I want you to take my shirt.’ That got them all churned up. I remember the three of us just hugging each other for so long and crying, but I’d dehydrated to where there were no tears. There was nothing.”
Says Tim: “I was scared. I didn’t want to be all alone with Buddy.” Tim held tight to his father. “He said that he loved me and that he thought I was the best father he could ever have, that he couldn’t think of anyone else he would rather have as a father,” says Lutes. “I couldn’t have thought of a better thing for a son to say to me.”
Surprisingly, Lutes felt better when he awoke the following morning. (“Maybe what you two said got me through Wednesday night,” he told his sons later.) But by Friday afternoon he felt himself slipping away again. His senses blurred. Lutes imagined he saw a Coke machine, and Buddy hallucinated that he was reclining in their living room La-Z-Boy trying to turn on the TV, but he was unable to work the remote control. That same afternoon Lutes noticed that he and Tim had begun breathing irregularly, an ominous sign. The boys began to ask what it would be like to die. Their father told them that hypothermia would make them feel warm and fall asleep, while dehydration would make them lose consciousness. “Then they wanted to know what would happen after they died,” he says. “I told them that in the Bible it says that heaven is like paradise, so they would no longer be thirsty or feel pain and they would be able to be up therewith their mother again. That was comforting.”
As the three lay together drifting in and out of sleep, Lutes heard someone calling Tim’s name. “I thought it was my mind playing tricks on me,” he says. “I just lay there and didn’t say a thing. It was Tim who sat up and started yelling, and I realized if he was hearing the same thing I was, it must be real. Then we all three sat up and started yelling.”
Fifteen minutes later, their five-day nightmare ended, as two rescuers approached. “The lights on their hats seemed like a high beam from a car shining in our eyes,” Lutes remembers. “I didn’t turn my head away. I looked at it. I loved seeing that light.” Cavers Chuck Hempel and Marty Hardy, the first to reach the Luteses, saw three blackened faces with only the whites of their eyes showing clearly.
The first move toward a rescue had come on Wednesday, more than 48 hours earlier, when a resident near the cave, noticing that Lutes’s truck hadn’t been moved for three days, phoned the West Virginia state police. They in turn asked Florida police for a license plate check. When it was learned that the Luteses were on a caving expedition, the police contacted the National Speleological Society, which is routinely brought in for cave-rescue assistance. By 10 P.M. Friday, some 50 searchers, gathered at an NSS meeting in the Smoke Hole area, were making their way toward New Trout Cave.
Lutes and Buddy stumbled out of the cave on their own; Tim had to be carried. At the mouth of the cave, Lutes remembers being overwhelmed with smells. “Caves have a musty, damp odor,” he says. “You can smell the rock. Man, when we got to the entrance of the cave, I was hit with this hot, humid air that had the smell of trees, leaves and flowers—so many odors all of a sudden. I could also see everything,” he adds. “Even though it was the middle of the night, it seemed like we were in broad daylight.” Lutes was also exhilarated with relief. “It was an answer to a prayer to be able to be out there looking up at the stars—and to know my children were going to be able to grow up.”
Considering their ordeal—”I thought we were going in after bodies,” says caver David West—the three came through in fairly good condition. All suffered from dehydration, starvation and nerve damage to their feet from lost circulation. Buddy had a partially collapsed lung, and Tim had to be treated for an infected blister. Lutes and Buddy were hospitalized for two nights, Tim for three.
“It happened; I can’t change it now,” says Lutes. “But if one of my children had died, I probably never would have forgiven myself.” On reflection, Lutes suspects the calamity may not have cured him of the caving bug, but one thing has changed. “I think from here on out, I’m going to be a much calmer person, much more patient. I’m just going to try to make the best of each day,” he says. “And the boys—I’m noticing little differences in them, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.” Like the cave itself, the depths of the family’s experience have not yet been plumbed.
—Additional reporting by Katy Kelly, New Trout Cave