Thought of losing brother inspires heroic rescue

January 27, 1994|By McClatchy News Service

MAGALIA, Calif. -- Across California's Gold Country, scores of abandoned mine shafts are a source of mystique and local legend. But for two Paradise, Calif., brothers, a mine known as "The Last Chance" became a lure for a terrifying ordeal.

Yesterday, one brother, Steve Ridpath, 21, was hospitalized after tumbling 150 feet down a vertical tunnel deep inside the mine.

His younger brother, Allen Ridpath, 19, was being hailed as a hero after shimmying down a pipe, pulling him from cold and murky water and then holding him on his knees for nearly 10 hours until rescue workers arrived. It was an accident exposing the dangerous reality of old mine shafts, as well as the difficulty of mine rescues.

"There are literally thousands of old shafts in Butte County," said Gary Connor, owner of the Gold Seekers store in nearby Paradise. "You have to watch for mining shafts . . . just like you have to watch for rattlesnakes."

The Ridpath brothers and an acquaintance, Bobby Erler, 32, apparently were looking for historic artifacts deep inside the Last Chance gold mine on Middle Butte Creek when the accident occurred Tuesday afternoon.

Acting Butte County Fire Chief Dick Teller said the three had wandered about a quarter-mile into a long, horizontal mining tunnel when Steve Ridpath fell through the boarded-over entrance to a vertical shaft, tumbling 150 feet into a deep basin of standing water.

"His brother used a rope to shimmy on down a pipe that went down in the hole and found him lying face down in the water and pulled him out," Chief Teller said. "Then he strapped him to the pipe and stayed down there with him while the other guy went for help."

"That kid's brother is a bona fide hero," said Bob Trussell, Lassen County Mine Rescue Team commander. "There's no doubt about it, he saved his brother's life."

Mr. Trussell said that by the time rescuers -- using a special pulley system -- reached them with oxygen, both men were having difficulty breathing because of the diminished supply of air in the cold, wet space at the bottom of the shaft.

Deep beneath the ground, where one rescuer said it was "real nasty with all that fungus and goo," Steve Ridpath was in shock and nearly incoherent after suffering a broken pelvis and a puncture wound to the ribs. But Allen Ridpath held his brother up and helped keep him alive.

At Chico's Eloe Hospital, where Steve Ridpath was in intensive care after undergoing surgery yesterday for a ruptured spleen, Allen Ridpath said he had faced his greatest fear.

"I'm not afraid of anyplace or anything," the younger brother said, "except for losing my brother."

Allen, who was accompanied at the hospital by his mother and Steve's fiancee, said he heard his brother "yell and then hit the pipes [in the shaft] on the way down and then the water. I thought he was dead."

With Mr. Erler shining a flashlight down the shaft, Allen Ridpath slid down, pulled his brother out of the water and used a rope to tie the two of them together.

Chief Teller said it took Mr. Erler almost 1 1/2 hours to walk from the remote mine to the Magalia Fire Station, where he told firefighters of the accident. Chief Teller called the state Office of Emergency Services, which contacted the Lassen County Mine Rescue Team, one of only five nonprofit, volunteer outfits in the state certified to perform dangerous mine rescues.

But Mr. Trussell said his crew experienced frustrating delays between Susanville and Paradise when they encountered a snowstorm. Eventually some 80 workers from Butte County Search and Rescue, Butte County Fire Department and other agencies gathered at the scene as state Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention crews set to work cutting and lighting a trail down the steep, muddy canyon to the mine.

Chief Teller said he felt it was too risky to send rescuers immediately into the mine because of the possibility there were poisonous gases or a limited oxygen supply. At 11 p.m. Tuesday, crews equipped with oxygen tanks and other emergency equipment began the rescue attempt.

First they pulled out Allen Ridpath, who was suffering from hypothermia. A few hours later, exhausted crew members who had placed Steve Ridpath in a special protective basket pulled him to the top of the shaft.

Property owner Robert "Pegleg" Smith said yesterday that a padlocked door had been placed at the entrance to the mine to block trespassers. Mr. Smith said the locks had been checked just last week and were intact, but he said he had no interest in pressing trespassing or other charges.

But Allen Ridpath denied the men had broken into the mine, and said it was probably their fourth visit to the site during the past four years.

"It was neat to see the old mining equipment and metal wheel," said Allen, who, like his brother, is an unemployed construction worker. "We often spend a half or whole day hiking the trails through that canyon."

But this adventure was more than they bargained for.

"The one that got hurt didn't know a whole lot about what was going on when I got there," said Mr. Trussell, "but his brother was sure thrilled when we arrived. He said he was getting so tired he didn't think he could hold on anymore."

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