Authorities: 4 found safe, pulled from Tennessee cave after huddling overnight for warmth

Published 10:03 pm Friday, March 21, 2008

TOWNSEND, Tenn. (AP) — Rescuers found four cavers cold and wet but otherwise safe on Friday after they didn’t return as planned from an overnight spelunking trip in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The four were brought out of the cave in good condition shortly before 8 p.m., about six hours after searchers made contact with them. The men had descended about 500 feet into the cave from its entrance, park spokesman Kent Cave said.

‘‘They were at the bottom of the third of three major vertical drops in the cave,’’ Cave said earlier Friday. ‘‘It’s like rock climbing, but rock climbing in the dark with water falling over you. The vertical drops are basically waterfalls.’’

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Rescue squad members had warm clothes, blankets and hot food waiting for the four.

‘‘They had huddled together,’’ said Bob Miller, a park spokesman. ‘‘They simply didn’t have the strength to get out on their own.’’

He said the temperature in the cave was in the low to mid-50s.

The four had left Maryville, Tenn., at about 10 p.m. Thursday night and had expected to return five hours later.

The wife of one of the cavers, Garry Blakesley, a 24-year-old youth minister in Maryville, reported the group missing around Friday morning. Also missing were Blakesley’s brother, Dustin Blakesley, 17; Jake Layman, 17; and Chris Smith, 20, all of Owasso, Okla.

Rangers and rescue workers began searching Rainbow Cave, one of four with entrances in the area, after finding a backpack and rope belonging to the men.

They had ‘‘little or no experience in caving and were very poorly equipped,’’ Cave said. Once they discovered they couldn’t get out, they apparently called for help but couldn’t be heard over the sound of underground waterfalls.