Beneath the earth

August 03, 2002

IF THE COOL, dark confines of caves - among man's first shelters - still resonate with the human psyche, then the horror of being trapped underground runs even deeper. Witness the recent fever stirred by the nine Pennsylvania miners - cornered for 77 hours 240 feet below the surface of the Earth, often in total darkness, almost drowning - before the triumph of their brilliant rescue last weekend.

"Nine for nine": Nine men endured together and nine men came out asking for beer and chewing tobacco, a highly unusual recovery in a dangerous industry that took 72 lives last year. The happy ending was testimony to the rare combination of grit, savvy and teamwork of both the entombed and their rescuers, but the national fascination with such predicaments is old hat.

Who remembers Jessica McClure? She was the Midland, Texas, 18-month-old who in 1987 fell 22 feet down a narrow abandoned well, where she was trapped for more than 58 hours while rescuers desperately tried to fetch her.

Jessica, now a teen-ager, reportedly ended up with a million-dollar trust fund from donations; her parents divorced a few years later. The paramedic who finally emerged from the depths with her in his arms became an instant national hero; the photo of that moment won a Pulitzer Prize; he ended up addicted to prescription drugs and killed himself in 1995 four days after viewing on TV the efforts to rescue the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing.

There have been many such riveting tales from beneath the earth, but the first to fully capture the nation's imagination was the saga of Floyd Collins, which - along with Charles Lindbergh's flight and his son's kidnapping - was among the top American news stories between the two world wars. In 1925, Collins, an entrepreneur in the days of the show-cave wars in Kentucky's Mammoth Cave region, got pinned by a fallen rock in a narrow passage he'd been exploring 170 feet down in hope of finding a new commercial attraction.

Unlike the recent rescue in Somerset, Pa., his was testament to the baseness of humanity, taking on a tent-carnival atmosphere drawing thousands of tourists and profiteers. William "Skeets" Miller, a diminutive Louisville newspaper reporter, crawled down to the trapped Collins and fed him, in the process grabbing himself a Pulitzer for one of the more unusual interviews in the history of journalism. Rescuers, hampered by their alcohol intake, dug a parallel shaft. They did not reach him for 17 days, long after he had died. Later, his body was retrieved, patched with wax and put on display for tourists - though at one point it was stolen. Collins was not properly buried until 1989.

These days, a small Floyd Collins museum sits on the edge of Mammoth Cave National Park, passed by tens of thousands of tourists who eagerly take lengthy tours hundreds of feet underground in that 360-mile-long cave system, the world's largest. Anyone who doubts the fundamental attraction of going deep into the Earth should try to get a last-minute reservation for one of these tours in the summer.

A common highlight of these journeys is when guides turn off all the lights that line the cave's pathways and ask visitors to be as quiet as possible. Immediately they are entombed in a darkness beyond anything that can be experienced above ground. And if the kids stop giggling for a moment, the silence is so profound that it roars.

It would be obscene to compare this limited and tame experience to that of the nine miners who recently waited for rescue in the dark with cold water rushing by, their lives at stake. At the same time, it gives a lingering inkling of the power of the primordial world under the earth, one both alluring and frightening.

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