Jerry Summers: Nickajack Cave No. 2 - Scuba Disaster?

Saturday, January 9, 2021 - by Jerry Summers

One of the collateral benefits of writing two columns a week for the Chattanoogan.com are the occasional comments and suggestions by viewers that either submit a new topic or expand the original story by adding a previously unmentioned feature about the subject in question.

On December 24, 2020 I wrote an article about the history of Nickajack Cave and the effect of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) erecting Nickajack Dam a mile east down the Tennessee River when the flood gates of the new dam were closed and there would be “permanent flooding of the Nickajack Cave and the land in front of it.”

Although I had briefly mentioned the experiences of singer Johnny Cash and Lawrence Ashley, who had gotten lost in the caverns in 1927 that received national recognition, I did not mention the event that happened on the evening of August 15, 1992.

A viewer forwarded a copy of an article titled “The Bat Cave Miracle,” scheduled to be published in the National Geographic Magazine in 2007.  The historical periodical conducted interviews of participants involved in the near-death experience of two individuals for the purpose of featuring the story on a special series called “Stranger Than Fiction” which was scheduled to air in the Spring of 2008.

The history of Nickajack Cave has been documented as being a site for Chickamauga Indians to perform war dances prior to plotting attacks on white settlers in the area and was also an important source of saltpeter to make gunpowder by the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The developer of Ruby Falls in Chattanooga on Lookout Mountain, Leo Lambert, had also unsuccessfully tried to operate both locations as a tourist attraction.

Prior to the closing of the gates at Nickajack Dam, the quasi-abandoned cave had been a popular area for adventurous spelunkers to visit.

After the water level was raised and flooded the opening of the cave, only about 15 feet of the entrance remained and a few hundred feet into the grotto the ceiling dropped and “disappeared into the green waters of Lake Nickajack.”

TVA has protected the cave since 1980 as a sanctuary for the thousands of endangered Indiana bats which make it their home.  The nightly exit of the bats in order to feed on insects has become a popular phenomenon.

Recognizing the potential for danger to trespassers, TVA erected a heavy chain-link fence to block entry with a prominent sign advising of the existence of the bats and the civil and criminal penalties for illegally entering the cave.

In order to further discourage entry, a second chain fence was placed further inside.

However, sometimes humans demonstrate more bravery than brains when they want to investigate a historical area.

Such was the case on the evening of August 15, 1992, when two young men put on their scuba gear and illegally entered Nickajack in search of giant catfish.  Both had been certified in “open water training” but had no experience in the ultra-hazardous sport of “cave diving” which requires special training, certification and special equipment, including a continuous guideline to the entrance because of the potential for getting disoriented and lost under water in the dark and murky waters.

Ignoring these safety requirements, the young men entered the underwater cave in pursuit of a trophy-sized catfish that one of them had speared the night before and they believed could be found to be captured alive or dead.

With visibility limited to about two feet and using their dive lights, they descended into a green empty space that soon illuminated a muddy, rocky bottom.

Failing to find the catfish prize and with their air supply running low, the two inexperienced cave divers started to head back to the surface.

It was at this point that things went wrong.  Having no lifeline, they followed their air bubbles upwards and expected to emerge into the air-filled portion of the cave but were shocked to discover that they had made a wrong turn and after panicking took off in different directions.

One of the young men was fortunate to emerge into an air-filled passage as his tank emptied of air and was able to get out of the cave.

He immediately notified TVA security of the situation and a rescue operation was initiated to attempt to locate and save the second diver.

Several dive teams (none who had experience as a cave diver) were dispatched without locating the second young man.

Although several requests were made to locate and bring in a trained cave diver, they were denied each time because of bureaucratic snags that could have cost the second diver’s life.

Eventually, after three unsuccessful attempts into the cave’s cavern entrance to try and locate the hopefully still alive diver, permission was finally obtained to bring in a cave diver from Huntsville, Alabama, 100 miles away.

A gathering crowd of relatives and friends established a prayer vigil behind the police line at the scene.

The story of the survival and rescue of the second diver and his personal experience while waiting for help or death from drowning or lack of air are “incidents” in the miracle category.

A captain in the Hamilton County Cave/Cliff Rescue Team, Buddy Lane, and his lieutenant, Dennis Curry and Mark Caldwell, a National Defense Executive with FEMA, finally consulted and agreed to make further rescue attempts on the slight hope that the diver was still alive by breathing in the various air pockets existing in Nickajack Cave.

Rather than further encroaching on the story of the efforts of Lane and Curry to rescue the diver and his own attempts to stay alive, any interested readers are respectfully directed to the previously mentioned National Geographic series “Stronger Than Fiction” episode that aired in the spring of 2008 to find out the miraculous ending to what started out as a foolish attempt to capture a giant catfish.

It is sufficient to say that both Johnny Cash and the second young diver had life changing religious experiences following their exposure to Nickajack Cave!

* * *

Jerry Summers

(If you have additional information about one of Mr. Summers' articles or have suggestions or ideas about a future Chattanooga area historical piece, please contact Mr. Summers at jsummers@summersfirm.com)


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