Swiss students in good health after cave ordeal
GENEVA (AP) – It was meant to be a brief caving expedition, part of a character-building exercise to prepare social work students for the professional challenges ahead. It turned into a 72-hour nightmare in a dark dungeon filled with swirling, muddy waters.
The ordeal began Wednesday when heavy rains sent floodwaters surging through a shallow, winding cave in eastern France near the Swiss border, trapping the seven amateur spelunkers and their guide.
On Sunday, a day after being rescued, the eight headed home weary but healthy as criticism mounted over the tour organizers’ decision to go ahead with the outing despite the worsening weather.
One of the students interviewed said the group became trapped by rising waters while heading back toward the entrance, and decided to wait for help rather than take any risks.
”The most difficult moment for me was when I realized I was a prisoner,” he told Swiss television upon arriving at the hospital late Saturday.
”It was tough because we couldn’t sleep – half an hour, one hour at the most,” said another man. ”But we did activities together – aerobics, and some games. We sang together.”
Authorities at the hospital in the Swiss town of Delemont refused to release their names.
One student praised the group’s teamwork and the ”responsible decisions” made by guide Judith Steinle in consultation with the others.
”It was thanks to a solidarity of the group that they found the resources and strength to survive and continue,” said Dominique Baettig, a hospital psychiatrist.
After some rest, a light lunch and medical tests that found them physically fit, all were all discharged from hospital and headed home Sunday afternoon.
The guide’s mother, Agathe, said Steinle, still en route, was still in need of sleep but otherwise was apparently fine. Steinle herself did not answer her mobile phone.
The young people were all social work students at a Zurich college taking part in a so-called ”pedagogical experience” expedition organized by the Basel-based company Altamira. The trip was designed to develop their ability to work together under stress and their capacity to cope with difficult situations.
After the relief of the rescue, accusations mounted that Altamira acted irresponsibly, given that the cave was known to fill suddenly with ground water after heavy rains.
”It’s not a cave for a training session to initiate people into spelunking,” said David Caillol, a member of the French Spelunkers’ Society, who took part in the 300-person rescue mission.
Caillol criticized Altamira for leading the group into the cave ”in a careless way … without even warning the people of the risk they were running.”
Altamira director Valentin Vonder Muehll had taken a group into the cave known as ”Bief-du-Parou,” or the Parou Canal, on Wednesday morning. Despite warnings of torrential rain, the second group led by Steinle set out that afternoon.
Steinle’s mother defended the company and her daughter.
”I can only stress whenever anyone says something to me that this firm is very serious and doesn’t organize any activities carelessly,” she told The AP in a telephone interview.
She said her daughter was experienced in adventure activities, having also taught paragliding, llama trekking, igloo-building and rock climbing.
French authorities have not yet said whether they will sue Altamira for the cost of the rescue operation, which included bringing in heavy pumping equipment to drain water from the cave.
”Happy ending to an idiotic escapade,” read a headline in Switzerland’s dimanche.ch newspaper.
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