Australia must ready to mount major cave rescues, experts warn
Cave rescues are typically complex, lengthy operations requiring expert knowledge. (Supplied: Ola Löfquist)
Caving expert Janine McKinnon was standing on a narrow ledge 70 metres underground in July 2017 when a member of her of party fell.
Swiss tourist Isabelle Chouquet broke her right femur in the eight-metre fall.
Suddenly, Ms McKinnon’s party found themselves at the centre of Tasmania’s largest and most complex ever cave rescue.
“It was a scary moment,” she recalled.
“My first thought was if she’s broken her femur, has she severed her femoral artery? What internal damage has she done that could cause her to bleed out really quickly?”
While Ms McKinnon and others performed first aid, two members of the party left to summon help.
It took about 13 hours and complex rigging and cooperation between rescuers to lift Ms Chouquet’s stretcher through four narrow vertical passageways to the surface and onto a waiting helicopter.
“You don’t want her turning and facing the rocks, you don’t want to be thumping her against anything, because you don’t want to give her anymore injuries,” Ms McKinnon said.
Most important to Ms Chouquet was the camaraderie demonstrated by her rescuers, Ms McKinnon said.
“She told me she was really pleased with the banter that was going on, the relaxed mood, the friendliness between us all,” she said.
The cavers and emergency workers involved in the Midnight Hole rescue were given Professional Commendation Awards by the National Search and Rescue Council.
Cave rescues like no other
Cave rescues are rare in Australia — there is an average of one per state each year — but the caving community regularly practises its rescue skills in case they are called upon.
Members of the Midnight Hole party joined other experts on cave science, exploration and rescue at the Australian Speleological Federation’s annual conference in the north-west Tasmanian city of Devonport this week.
Brian Evans, coordinator of the Australian Cave Rescue Commission, took part in a recent exercise in a cave in New South Wales and experienced the difficult conditions faced by rescuers.
“I could traverse the entire length of that cave in about 20 minutes as an able-bodied caver by myself, but to set up the systems to safely move a stretcher and to get that person out took around six hours,” Mr Evans said.
“In a cave there’s frequently muddy areas, and mostly the floor is a bit slippery, sometimes extremely slippery, so we have to do a lot of work with ropes.”
Mr Evans said developing relationships with local emergency services was vital for successful cave rescues.
“We need to make sure they understand that rescuing from caves is really not like even really difficult bush country,” he said.
“Because you can’t get a helicopter in, everything you do is slippery, wet and with potential fall risks almost constant.”
Australia needs to be ready to mobilise in the event of a cave rescue emergency, experts warn. (Supplied: Gabriel Kinzler)
Animal rescues part of the job
Even communicating with someone trapped or injured underground is tricky, according to Northern Caverneers member Janice March, who coordinates cave rescue exercises in Tasmania’s north.
“We practice how to communicate with the people on the surface via some little phone lines that we thread through the cave and then use special telephone systems to keep track of what’s going on in the deeper parts of the cave,” she said.
In August 2017, Ms March and other local cavers were called on to rescue a calf that had become trapped in a narrow cleft that opened in a paddock at Mole Creek near Launceston following torrential rain.
She had to climb down five metres into the hole to tie a rope around the calf’s hind legs in the rescue four-hour operation.
“We gradually eased the calf up this narrow slot using the forks on the tractor and a bit of pulling and digging to get him up there,” she said.
The calf’s grateful owner named the animal “Lucky”.
Cave rescue teams face many risks, including falls and rising water. (Supplied: Gabriel Kinzler)
‘We need to be ready for major rescue’
The incredible rescue of a teenage soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand in 2018 transfixed the world.
Although the 12 boys and their coach survived the ordeal, but a diver died during the rescue bid.
Brian Evans said the incident should be a reminder to Australian authorities to ensure cavers and emergency services were prepared for complex rescue situations, and could quickly mobilise international cave rescue experts.
“Whilst rescues like that are obviously extremely uncommon, there is potential that we could have a multiple-day rescue like that in Tasmania, where a casualty could be in a really difficult place,” he said.
“Australia needs to prepare, even though it’s very unlikely, so that we have the mechanisms available to get other people in, and that we don’t have other rescuers being hurt or killed as we did in Thailand because they don’t really understand cave rescue.”