Steve Gerrard stirred his coffee slowly as a lazy Sunday morning in 1991 began at Spring Systems Dive Center in Luraville, Florida: “cave country” for those in the know. He still had some time to kill before his cave diving class would begin and he turned the pages of the Sunday paper with growing boredom. Just after 9:00 AM, the phone range and right away he knew this was not going to be a typical weekend.
The caller was Vivian Indriago from Venezuela. Gerrard remembers, “She was distraught. A good friend of hers, Gustavo Badillo, was lost in an underwater cave. He’d already been missing over 12 hours and it was hard to hold much hope that he’d be found alive.”
Gustavo and a diving partner, Eduardo Wallis, had decided to dive the Riito de Acarite cave in search of a legendary underground lake reported by earlier British explorers in 1973. This river cave would be rated as extremely hazardous by even the top cave diving professionals. The entrance is gained from the base of a mountain surrounded by dense, virtually impenetrable jungle at nearly 2500 feet elevation. The bottom is fine mud silt rendering visibility limited under the best conditions and water temperatures hover at about the mid-6o’s F.
The setting was challenging enough and the two buddies were well experienced divers (Gustavo was credentialed as an instructor), but neither were formally trained as cave divers. This fundamental requirement had been ignored and now one man was missing and presumed dead. Gerrard quickly listened to enough details of the dive to assess the situation.
“Both divers had entered the water at 8:00 PM Saturday night without a guideline from outside the cave, but carrying a 100 foot spool of thick rope. They were each using a single 80 tank, one regulator, no alternate air source, and three lights,” he related. “Gustavo was wearing a wet suit in the chilly water and Eduardo a dry suit. They also carried an orange float ball attached to a chest harness by a 15 foot rope. They began the dive following a cave wall underwater. The visibility was about ten feet as they fumbled their way deeper into the system and emerged into a small air chamber.”
Unfortunately, their swimming quickly stirred up the silt bottom and reduced the visibility to zero. Then they realized that they had become separated and were lost. Trying to stave off panic, they groped around in the turbid dark water and only became further confused. Gustavo floundered into another small air pocket and surfaced. Although he could not see Eduardo, at least they could talk to each other. They grimly discussed the seriousness of their situation for several minutes as their air supply trickled down. It was agreed that each would try to find their way out independently.
Eduardo set out and began a terrifying exodus that kept him swimming into walls and dead ends. After seemingly endless searching, he miraculously stumbled out of the cave into the night jungle atmosphere. But Gustavo was still inside! Eduardo had no way of knowing if he was still in an air pocket or lost in an underwater tunnel. In spite of being critically low on air, he made several futile trips back into the cave in a desperate attempt to find his friend. Finally, with dawn peering through the rain forest canopy, he abandoned the solo rescue effort and sought help.
Gerrard knew the odds of finding Gustavo alive were absurdly low in the cold water and limited oxygen of an air pocket if he had managed to avoid drowning in the tunnels. But the Badillo family were willing to charter a private jet to transport two expert cave divers to the site in hopes of saving their son. Would Steve be willing to try?
“I knew we were probably really going after a body recovery, but I kept quiet and said we’d be ready as soon as the plane landed. I contacted John Orlowski who was another cave instructor with a lot experience with river caves down in Belize and Mexico. John dropped everything and started assembling the gear we’d need. Time was critical. We had to get everything together and be at the Gainesville airport in 10 hours. I wasn’t even sure where my passport was but I assured the Badillos we’d be there and find Gustavo,” Steve remembers.
By 10:45 PM that night, Gerrard and Orlowski were flying at 20,000 feet over Florida beginning the 1200 mile trip to Venezuela. They worried about overzealous, but well-meaning amateurs trying a rescue before they got there and discussed the grim scenario of bringing out the body in the difficult conditions they would face. Finally landing at 5:30 in the morning, they found that dense fog in the mountains had canceled their helicopter flight to the cave site. A mad scramble ensued to load a Jeep with all the gear and cram people into the remaining space.
What followed then could have come right from an Indiana Jones script. Steep grades, impossible curves, potholes, washed out bridges, and various animals were all part of the picture as they crossed a 6000 foot mountain range to begin the descent into the dense jungle valley. Gerrard smiles ruefully, “Somehow we made it to the cave site and there were 18 people standing around a bunch of tarps with 20 scuba tanks and a portable compressor. They helped us move the equipment we’d brought on the plane down a muddy, slippery path. I thought our twin sets of doubles would finish them off, but suddenly it was just past 8:00 AM Monday morning and it was time to dive.”
Thirty six hours had passed since Gustavo had originally entered the cave and both Gerrard and Orlowski gave him no chance of survival. They flipped a coin to see who would run the guideline. John tied off the line on a surface rock projection and disappeared into the muddy water. Visibility was six inches or less and both divers had to swim about forty feet before going under the rock overhead. Orlowski followed the left cave wall with Gerrard barely able to see his fin tips. The guideline was taut as both men peered into the void hoping for any glimpse of terrain similar to what Eduardo had described.
“After what seemed like an eternity, we swam into a shallow air chamber and surfaced. I bumped into something and felt it move away. We looked around expecting to see a floating body but only found the orange float Gustavo had worn on his harness. This was totally nuts! Who in their right mind would dive this?”, Gerrard continued. “I didn’t even think we could find the body in these conditions. He could easily have swum into a side passage or hole where we could pass him several times and never find him. The thought of just staying put for a couple of hours where we were and then lying about looking for Gustavo crossed our minds. I mean, why risk two more lives for a guy who was surely dead? But we pressed on.”
The search seemed like hours down one tunnel after another with no results. John had gotten ahead of Steve and suddenly began flashing his primary light. Gerrard figured he had found the body and steeled himself for the gruesome apparition. He surfaced in another air chamber pool larger than the first. “John began to stand up and I saw a reflection of something else. It was moving. Holy Glory, it’s a human, he’s alive! I couldn’t believe it.
“Gustavo was in two feet of water, stumbling toward John in shock. We yelled that we were Americans, was he OK? He reached out and hugged us both in euphoria.”
Gustavo explained that he had thought they were angels coming to take him to heaven when the divers’ lights lit up the air chamber from underwater. He had lost all hope of being found. Incredibly, he was in good shape, although quite cold and still wearing his wet suit. Steve tied off a new reel inside the room and hurried back to the cave entrance to tell those waiting outside the good news.
“He’s alive. He’s OK!” The crowd was stunned and then erupted in cheers.
Gerrard grabbed a bottle of water with glucose to replenish Gustavo’s fluids and bolster his weakened condition. Checking his air pressure, he swiftly returned to the chamber where Gustavo had been entombed. Only thirteen minutes had elapsed. Now a crash course in emergency cave diving procedure was initiated with Gustavo an eager student. He would breathe from John’s long hose second stage while the two veterans sandwiched him between them on the long swim out. After more than a day and half in the darkness waiting to die, he surfaced into the arms of his family and friends and collapsed.
Later, huddled by a fire wrapped in blankets to warm him after the ordeal, he thanked his rescuers and offered a prayer. The fog lifted and a helicopter landed to fly him out for follow-up hospital care. Gerrard and Orlowski retrieved the lines from the cave and gathered their equipment for the torturous journey back over the mountains. It was just past 10:00 AM when they were packed and ready to go. A little over 24 hours had passed since Steve’s Sunday morning coffee had been interrupted.