Few things are more dangerous than exploring caves. For the men and women who travel into the depths of the Earth, the risks are incredible. As they squeeze through narrow pathways, climb down steep chasms, and dive into freezing subterranean waters, they play a dangerous game with their lives.
On a good day, these people are rewarded with incredible sights most will never see. On a bad one, though, the punishments are severe. In the pitch dark beneath the surface of the world, some have become lost and trapped. They’ve found themselves stuck in dark, claustrophobic spaces, making a desperate bid for survival in a real-life horror story.
10 The Mossdale Cavern Disaster
John Ogden and five of his friends were 3.2 kilometers (2 mi) deep into an unmapped part of England’s Mossdale Caverns in 1967 when the rain began to fall. For hours, they’d climbed and crawled their way through the dark, winding tunnels of the cave, exploring a part of the world no one had ever seen. Deep in that labyrinth of stone, they had no way of knowing what was coming.
In the downpour, the creek outside of the mountain was rising. Soon, there was a full-on flood. The entrance was buried under a rising lake, and the water came rushing into the cave through every pathway. Ogden and his group were crawling through a narrow tunnel when they heard the rumble of rushing water behind them. It spilled in, first rising up over their feet and quickly climbing to their necks.
The group’s only hope was a small crack in the rocks up ahead. Ogden forced himself up the fissure, pulling his head up to a tiny pocket of air at the top. There was no room for anyone else. Beneath him, the water filled the tunnel, and every one of his friends died. Ogden alone had his head above the water, trapped in a narrow crevice.
It took days before anyone found him. By then, he was dead, too, still stuck there in that narrow pathway, struggling for a last gasp of air.
9 The Cave Beneath Poganica Bay
In 2002, divers found M.K.’s body at the bottom of an underwater cave in Croatia, 54 meters (177 ft) below the surface. He was alone, but his diving mask had been removed—and there was a 30-centimeter (12 in) knife lodged into his chest.
At first, the police investigated it as a murder. M.K. had gone cave diving with friends, and the police began to suspect that one of them had stabbed him and thrown him overboard to hide the body. Forensics, though, revealed a truth that was more chilling than any murder.
M.K. had gotten lost in the maze of the cave, and his oxygen ran out. With no air left, he started drowning. He swam up to an air bubble between two rocks and tried to breathe it in, but it wasn’t enough to save him. He would die here, he realized, and it would be a horrible and painful death.
The pain of drowning was too much to bear. M.K. stabbed himself in the chest with his own knife to escape the agony.
8 Lost In Sterkfontein Caves
Peter Verhulsel was a risk-taker. When he and his friends went cave diving through Sterkfontein Caves in South Africa in 1984, he ignored every safety guideline. There was a line through the water that they were supposed to follow, but Peter’s curiosity kept driving him to explore passages off the planned path.
The third time he did so, his friends couldn’t find him. Peter swam through a maze of tunnels and soon realized that he was lost. He was trapped alone in a cave with no idea how to get out, and his oxygen was running low.
In a stroke of luck, he found a small island at the end of a tunnel. He climbed out of the water and onto the island. Now, at least, he wouldn’t drown, but he didn’t have enough oxygen left to find his way out. His only hope was to wait for rescue.
Peter waited for hours before he gave in to exhaustion and fell asleep. When he woke, no help had come. He sat in a pitch-black cavern with nothing to eat and nothing to do but wait.
It took rescuers six weeks to find Peter. By then, his starved body had withered to bones. He left one final message behind for his wife and his mother. In his last days, knowing he would die, he scrawled in the sand: “I love you, Shirl and Ma.”
7 The Rescue Of Deon Dreyer
In January 2005, Dave Shaw was determined to retrieve Deon Dreyer’s body. Dreyer had been dead for ten years, lost 270 meters (885 ft) into Bushman’s Hole in South Africa, but Dave was going to bring his bones back to his family.
He found Deon’s body without a problem and hooked a line to it so he could bring it up safely. When he tried to cover the body with a body bag, though, the head snapped free. The body started to float away, and catching it turned into a vicious struggle.
Dave’s breath sped up. Soon, he was breathing faster than his rebreather could handle. The carbon dioxide it was supposed to filter out was coming back into his lungs, making him confused. His efforts to get Deon into the bag were getting wild and careless, and he was staying at it for too long.
After five minutes, Dave gave up and started swimming up, but his light got snagged on the cave line he’d attached to Deon’s body. Dave tried to get free, but Deon’s body was dragging him down. He panicked, his breath faster than ever. Dave was choking on his own exhalations. Dave passed out and died under the water, next to the body he’d tried to save.
6 The Nutty Putty Cave Collapse
Ryan Shurtz had been trying to save John Jones for 19 hours already that fateful day in 2010. John had gotten himself trapped headfirst and upside down in a narrow passageway in Utah’s Nutty Putty Cave, and Ryan and his team were doing everything they could to get him out. While his men built a pulley system meant to yank John out, Ryan stayed with him, talking to keep him calm.
“I’m sorry I’m so fat,” John said. “It would be so much easier for you guys to get me out of here if I wasn’t so fat.” Ryan promised that he’d be his workout buddy when they got out. For now, the pulley was in place, and they were going to start pulling. John needed to get ready.
When they yanked him up, John shrieked in pain. They gave him a break, Ryan talked him through it, and they pulled again.
This time, though, things got worse. A natural arch through which the rope was fed shattered, and the rope broke. A metal carabiner fell and hit Ryan in the face, causing him to bite his tongue in half. John fell back down the hole.
Ryan had to get out. While blood dribbled out of his mouth, he promised John that he’d be back for him. Ryan’s team helped him escape the collapsing cave, and Ryan’s father went in to take over for him. “We’re going to get you out,” he told the man trapped inside. But John was already unconscious. He would never wake up again.
5 Floyd Collins And Crystal Cave
Kentuckian Floyd Collins found Crystal cave in 1917, and he was determined to explore every inch of it. For eight years, he squeezed through its passageways—until the day he got trapped.
His lantern had started to flicker, and Collins was trying to get out before he lost light. He was climbing his way up a tight passageway when he knocked a 12-kilogram (27 lb) rock loose. It came crashing down onto his ankle, pinning him in place.
For the next 17 days, rescue teams tried to save him, but nothing they tried worked. In time, they brought in miners to dig a shaft to him, believing the only hope was to make a new way out. While he waited, Collins was becoming a celebrity. Tourists from all around were coming to see his rescue, with hucksters setting up booths to sell food, drinks, and souvenirs.
The mine shaft took too long. On his 18th day in the cave, Collins succumbed to hypothermia, thirst, and hunger.
4 The Cave Creek Disaster
The group of 17 students who visited New Zealand’s Cave Creek in 1995 didn’t think they were doing anything dangerous. They weren’t exploring narrow pathways; they were on a guided tour, staying on a beaten path designed for tourists.
When they made it to a platform that overlooked a chasm, some of the boys couldn’t help but notice how flimsy it felt. As a joke, they jumped and shook it, marveling at how precariously it seemed to be built.
They figured it was all in fun. In an era of safety regulations, they assumed that it just looked flimsier than it really was—but they were wrong. The platform had been built by men with no experience in engineering. It was meant to be bolted in place, but they’d used nails instead, simply because they didn’t have a drill handy.
Under the weight of the students, the platform gave way. It toppled over and collapsed, crashing down into the chasm below. One student survived by grabbing onto the handrail and riding it down, but his classmates were hurtled overboard and killed.
Of the 17, only four survived. They were lifted out in helicopters. One had a fractured spine, but with 13 of her friends dead, she counted herself as one of the lucky ones.
3 The Pannikin Plains Cave
In 1988, Andrew Wight was on a team of 15 people, exploring one of the deepest caves in the world. They would never see the bottom.
A freak storm hit. A flood of water poured in through the cave entrance, and the middle section of the entire cave collapsed. All 15 people were trapped underground, with Wight and a few others stuck on a small ledge.
It was hard to know what to do. The roof above them was getting ready to collapse, but the rushing water below them was too wild to enter. Boulders would fall off the cave walls and into the water, threatening to crush anyone who dared to step in.
Wight decided to try it. He swam through the water and managed to find another way out. Over the next 27 hours, he and others worked to send in line and lead his team out.
2 The Nam Talu Cave Flood
Helena Carroll was warned not to go into Nam Talu Cave in October 2007. It was Thailand’s monsoon season, and there was heavy rain. If she went in, the locals warned her, she would not return. Helena, though, ignored their warnings.
She wasn’t alone. Her boyfriend, John Cullen, joined her, along with seven other tourists who didn’t see the risk. They soon realized the magnitude of their mistake. First, they heard a sudden roar behind them—and then they saw the water rushing in.
“John and I started climbing,” Helena recalled. “The first thing we saw was the tour guide and the German boy being dragged away, then the Swiss couple and their two lovely girls.” Helena nearly slipped, but John caught her and helped her up to a ledge. It was pitch dark in there, but they could hear the incredible speed of the rushing water below them.
“If we stay here, we are going to die,” John told her. He thought he could swim for help and bring back a rescue party. Helena stayed behind as he climbed into water. She watched as the love of her life was pulled away by the current.
Helena was alone on the ledge for eight hours before rescue came. When they brought her out, the bodies of the others were lying in boxes on the grass. She saw John’s body lying next to the Swiss girls. It was only then that she realized that she was the only one to survive.
1 The Plura Caves Disaster
Kai Kankanen was one of the last divers to go into Norway’s Plura cave. It was a cold winter day in February 2014, and the pond that led to the cave had frozen over. The divers had to cut a hole in the ice before diving in. Patrik Gonqvist and Jari Huotarinen went in first, and Kai’s group followed after.
The plan was to swim through the pathways of Plura and come out on the other side, where there was an exit in the mountainside. Kai had already made it most of the way when he found Huotarinen’s body. His friend had gotten trapped in a narrow passageway. In his panic, he’d swallowed water and choked. Now, Jari’s lifeless body was blocking the way forward.
Jari Uusimaki, one of the men with Kai, panicked. He started breathing too quickly and poisoning himself with carbon dioxide. Kai tried to save him, but he couldn’t get him to calm down. Jari was the next to die, and Kai was left alone.
Kai turned back. He swam through the freezing water and back to the pond, but he couldn’t find the hole they’d made. He had no choice but to smash his way through the ice blocking his way to the surface.
By the time he was out, Kai had been underwater for 11 hours. The other men in his group had made it to the other exit and survived. It would take nearly two months, though, for the bodies of their friends to be retrieved.