24 HOURS UNDERGROUND

Shoalhaven ambulance paramedic’s unique perspective on the Bungonia cave rescue

Photo: NICK MOIR

SHOALHAVEN paramedic Jason Watson praised the rescue operation that helped free three trapped cavers in Bungonia last Monday.

Mr Watson who is a member of the NSW Ambulance Specialty Casualty Access Team, (SCAT), found himself in a unique vantage point to witness and assist in the rescue.

At about 1am on Monday he and a colleague from Wollongong were called to the Bungonia caving area in response to reports of three cavers who were overdue after going underground at about noon on Sunday.

They were expected out by 6pm the same day.

The experienced cavers – one aged 21, 47 and the other 52 – were unaware of rain on the surface until water suddenly gushed into the cave they were in, leaving them trapped between two flooded areas.

On arrival at a police mobile command post in Bungonia the SCAT members were joined by six cave rescue volunteers for a briefing.

They learned the missing cavers were experienced. 

The 52-year-old among them used to be a cave expedition leader overseas.

The group would most likely have food, water and light.

“There was no way to know if they were alive, but we put faith in the knowledge they were experienced cavers and they would know that a rescue would be under way,” Mr Watson said.

The rescuers were also told of a hidden cave that was not well known to the public that linked up with the cave system the trio were trapped in.

“Our next step was to head down into the caves,” Mr Watson said.

“We slid on our backs into the cave, feet first holding our packs above us. It was very steep.”

It was just after 4am and from this point the rescuers would be underground for the next 11 hours.

“We slid down into a large cave with a hole in the floor about one metre round. We lowered ourselves through the hole and abseiled 15 metres down to the next level,” he said.

“At this level two tunnels ran off; one down and left, one up and right. The cave rescue team went down to the left first but found no trace of the missing people.

“The other tunnel led them to where the cavers had been previously. 

“In this part of the cave system they found their packs.

“Apparently the cavers had left their packs while they went in to explore another cavern. 

“It was while they were in the other cavern that the squeeze they had come through became flooded. The trio were unaware it was raining up top,” Mr Watson said.

The group later told rescuers when the water started pouring through they “watched the water rise an inch every few seconds”.

They knew they couldn’t get back through the way they had come.

They pushed forward to a chamber called Coffin Chamber where they found a ledge above the water.

It was pitch-black and through their torchlight they could see a white-water river racing though the cave floor.

They knew while it kept flowing they were all right, but were concerned if it hit a log or blockage and started to back up it could fill their chamber. 

They were trapped.

As the searchers worked their way through the black, confined spaces, Mr Watson stopped in a cavern with one of the cave rescue team members and acted as a radio relay with the surface.

“The cave rescue guys, and girl, had gone back to the place where the two cave systems linked but the squeeze that joins them was under water,” Mr Watson said. 

“Those cave rescue guys deserve the pat on the back. There were six of them and while one of them stayed with me the others went and found this blocked passage and started digging a channel to drain the water.

“They managed to drain enough water to create a tiny airspace to get voice contact to the others trapped inside.

“Then one of the rescuers crawled through that squeeze on his back with just his nose barely above water. 

“It was a very game move. 

“He got through to them.

“When we got word that one of them had made it through I started to move up closer to assess them.

“I was on my belly squeezing through this cave thinking the part up ahead looks even tighter.

“Then I got pinned between the floor and the roof, I couldn’t move forward. I was lying there taking breaths, staying calm.

“I don’t get claustrophobic but I wasn’t real thrilled at being stuck in a cave.

“I exhaled as deeply as I could and pushed forward, but I got even more stuck. Only now I couldn’t breathe in or go any further so I had to back up quickly.

“The three cavers, to their credit, stayed in that chamber and decided when the water dropped a couple more inches they would try to make it back through that squeeze.

“By the time they got to me they were very thankful of the rescue. 

“We got them up the ropes and to the top quickly while their bodies still had warmth.

“The cave rescue team had a great way for getting them to the surface using a prussic system and an abseiler as a counterweight.”

The cavers and the rescuers surfaced at about 3pm Monday to a scene of reporters, cameras, friends and family.

“It was just so great to be bringing three live and well people out of those caves,” Mr Watson said.

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