Glasgow teen is rescued 9 1/2 hours after fall in cave

‘Wasn’t that bad,’ bruised spelunker says of ordeal.

By Sara Shipley an Deborah Yetter, The Louisville Courier Journal 17 July 2001.

Gripping a stalactite and standing on a rock ledge, Tyler Branstetter hadn’t planned to go too far into the private Road Cut Cave at Cave City.   But when the stalactite unexpectedly broke off, the 15 year old found himself sliding straight down a slick, muddy shaft about 25 feet into a rocky cavern – where he would remain for about 9 1/2 hours before he was rescued yesterday morning. 

“It wasn’t that bad,” a bruised and banged-up, but otherwise unhurt, Tyler said yesterday after he was released about 5 p.m. from University of Louisville Hospital.  “It’s a miracle,” said the Glasgow teen’s father, Keith Branstetter, who along with Tyler’s mother, Mitzi Bushway, waited at the cave entrance about six hours for their son to be rescued.

Tyler’s parent said rescue workers had warned them Tyler probably had broken bone and were relieved to learn at the hospital he had only cuts, scrapes and a few chipped teeth.  Tyler said he banged his head on a rock on the way down and thinks he lost consciousness for a few minutes but came to after he reached the bottom.

While they waited for rescue workers to remove their son from the cave, Bushway said, they were able to talk to him and hear his voice.  “I knew if he could talk, he would be OK,” Bushway said. 

In Cave City, one of the rescue workers said there was just enough room for Tyler to get out of the deep, narrow cave.  “It’s a very tight cave in place. We wound up bringing him out a hole that was just bigger round than a person’s chest,” said Chris Caswell, a member of the Technical Rope and Cave Emergency Response team, a volunteer group that specializes in cave rescues.  Caswell said the boy was responsive and cooperative. “He was a real trooper through the whole thing,” Caswell said.

It started as a midnight lark as two teen age boys ventured into the cave, armed only with a single flashlight. Tyler, who will be a sophomore at Barren County High School, is a guide at nearby Crystal Onyx Cave and Campground. He said he and a friend were camping out there when they decided to check out the tiny entrance to the Road Cut Cave, one of 16 caves on the 110 acre property.

Tyler, who started working at the cave this summer, said he is not an experienced caver and had not intended to go too far into the cave when he fell.

Rescuers said the cave begins with a short, narrow, twisting passageway that leads to the top of a 17 foot tall “chimney,” a vertical drop that the boys wriggled down by pressing their hands and feet against the cave walls. Then the cave opens into a room where cracks lead into another room below. 

Tyler apparently was standing on a ledge in the first room when he fell about 25 feet onto a pile of jagged rocks and boulders below. When rescuers found him, he was about 60 feet from the surface.

EVEN AFTER he slid to the bottom, Tyler wasn’t too frightened, he said. While his friend, whom officials did not identify, went for help, Tyler got up and tried to get out – but found he couldn’t climb the mud slick rocks walls.

“If I’d had a rope, I could have gotten out,” he said.  His friend got a flashlight to him while they waited for help and Tyler resigned himself to waiting.  “I was just worried about how they were going to get me out,” he said.   The friend ran to property owner Ed Hay’s home and woke him. Once Hay determined he couldn’t get the boy out himself, he immediately called authorities.

“Both individuals were very lucky especially the individual who fell,” said Bobby Bunnell, director of emergency services fore Glasgow and Barren County. It was the first cave rescue in the Crystal Onyx area since 1996, when an experienced Indianapolis caver broke a leg while guiding a team of geologists through Rogers Discovery Cave.

Bushway yesterday said she wanted especially to thank members of the Technical Rope and Cave Emergency Response team, a volunteer group that responded and helped rescue Tyler. They checked out his injuries, then placed him on a flexible backboard and hauled him out slowly – straight up – with a harness.

Officials with the Cave City Fire Department and the Barren County Sheriff’s Office credited the cave rescue team, known as TRACER, for its expertise in making the rescue a smooth one. Based in Bullitt County, the group does cave rescues and other emergency work across the state and in Indiana and Tennessee, commander Wayne Hodge said.

AMONG ITS 14 members are a doctor, a paramedic, cave experts, scuba divers and firefighters, hailing from Louisville to Bowling Green. The volunteers pay for their own expenses and equipment, with occasional state grants and fund-raising help,

Tyler was pulled out of the cave about 9:15 a.m. and was flown by helicopter to U of L Hospital, where he received five stitches for some small cuts on his face and was treated for scrapes. 

The worst scrapes were to his hands and knees, Tyler said. And the worst part of the ordeal, he said was when rescue workers had to cut the wet, muddy clothes off the already chilled youth.  “It was pretty cold down there,” Tyler said.

Although Tyler typically spent about four to five hours a day underground, leading hour long tours in the Crystal Onyx Cave, he was a novice spelunker who had never before explored an unguided “wild” cave, Hay said. Had that the boys asked, Hay would have refused permission to go into the cave, he said.

The teens went in unprepared with no helmets, kneepads, ropes or lanterns. “They had one hand held flashlight between them,” Caswell said. 

Tyler is fascinated with caves, his boss said. “At that age, you get a job as a cave guide, your interest gets really sparked,” said Hay, who wore a black T-shirt depicting flying bats. “A lot of guys, they want to run into it headlong.”

HAY DESCRIBED Tyler as a “wonderful guide” and a wonderful kid. “The first thing he was worried about  (when he got out) was, ‘Am I fired?’ “ Hay said.  He reassured his young employee that he was just glad he was all right.

Tyler said the ordeal hasn’t scared him away from caves, and he plans to go back to his job as soon as his injuries heal. He also hopes to continue exploring caves, he said.

Tyler said the ordeal taught him to be more careful around caves and never go in without the proper equipment – and expertise. 

“Make sure you have a rope, two flashlights and a buddy.”

Road Cut Cave as it appears today.
Members of the Technical Rope and Cave Emergency Response team worked at the entrance of Road Cut cave yesterday.