Inside the dangerous rescue operation to save an American caver in Turkey

Inside the dangerous rescue operation to save an American caver in Turkey

Published September 14, 2023

10 min read

On Monday evening—nine days after the call for help was issued—American caver Mark Dickey, who fell seriously ill 3,400 feet deep inside a cave in Turkey, was successfully rescued. It was one of the most difficult and complex cave rescue missions ever executed, according to veteran rescuers involved in the effort.

The Morca Cave, where Dickey was a member of an expedition to map the underground system, is the third deepest in Turkey. It contains a complicated combination of narrow passages and steep, vertical tunnels. The cave’s entrance is a remote spot at 6800 feet above sea level in the Taurus mountains, where only a weak mobile signal can call for help.

Dickey suffered sudden gastrointestinal bleeding, and his condition appeared life-threatening. It took an international team of 200 rescuers—volunteers from nine different countries—eight days to pull off the entire mission. Transporting Dickey to the surface, the most complex part of the rescue, was executed by 90 people and took just over two days.

“Everybody involved went beyond their limit of tiredness and just kept on working. It all developed exceptionally fast,” says Croatian rescuer Dinko Novosel, president of the European Cave Rescue Association (ECRA) and coordinator of the international caving teams conducting the rescue.

Dickey is a well-known member of the world caver community and leads the New Jersey Initial Response Team—a multi-disciplinary rescue group. For the international team, it felt like they were rescuing one of their own.

“These people are some of the most experienced and skilled cavers and rescuers in the world. And each of them gave their maximum,” said Giuseppe Conti, an experienced caver and rescuer from the Italian National Alpine and Speleological Rescue Corps, who led rescue logistics inside the cave.

An underground crisis

Turkey’s landscape is marked by karst, a type of terrain where caves easily form. Mile-deep caves in the region make it a popular destination for local and foreign cave researchers, also known as speleologists.

It was while more than 3,000 feet deep in one of these caves that Dickey suddenly began bleeding internally.

Alerted by his fiancée and fellow member of the expedition, Jessica Van Ord, the first rescuers arrived at the scene on September 3, and a four-person medical team from the Hungarian Cave Rescue Service immediately started a seven-hour descent to reach Dickey. With no direct communication to the ill caver, the rescue team feared they might not reach him in time.

“I had more than ten possible scenarios in my head, including the one where he is already dead. But fortunately, he was in better shape than I was expecting,” said Hungarian doctor and caver Zsófia Zádor.

At the time of their arrival, Dickey had already lost a lot of blood, frighteningly visible by the small hole in the ground filled with his blood. Zador gave him medication to lower his stomach acidity and stop the bleeding. Despite being a thousand meters deep inside the dark and cold cave, surrounded by mud and dust, Zádor and her team were able to perform a blood transfusion and gave Dickey four units of blood and plasma, warming the blood bags with the help of a camp gas stove.

Though stabilized, his condition remained life-threatening, explains Zádor. He would have to be carried out in a stretcher.

Meanwhile, 3,000 feet above, the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) started the operation, officially giving ECRA authority to coordinate international teams rescue teams. Cavers from Turkey, Italy, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Poland arrived at the cave’s entry point and began preparing the cave for Dickey’s transport. Rescuers from Ukraine, the U.S., and Romania would soon join the rescue.

Teams equipped the cave with two different communication systems—a phone cable and an additional wireless communication system that can transmit short messages through hundreds of meters of solid rock, called “cave-link.” Bulgarian rescuers widened paths through meandering passages between 1,900 and 2,400 feet, detonating small blasts in some sections and using only chisels and hammers in others. Additional rescuers worked for hours to equip the cave with anchors and ropes.

An international community of expert cavers

Although these kinds of accidents happen very rarely, rescues from the world’s deepest caves are notoriously dangerous. 

Through most of the 20th century, getting trapped a few thousand feet inside a cave was, in most cases, a death sentence. But in the last few decades, national caving associations in countries rich with these underground cave systems have grown larger and rescue techniques have improved.

Each national team of cavers brings different expertise. In several European countries—like France, Croatia, and Italy—rescuers are accustomed to big vertical drops, having some of the deepest caves in the world. In England, submerged horizontal underground passages are common, and navigating them is a skill that English cavers used to execute another famous mission—saving 12 boys and their coach from the depths of a Thai cave in 2018.

This diverse know-how is why ERCA formed in 2012 to share knowledge for rescue missions requiring hundreds of expert cavers.

And it was in 2014 that ERCA tested its life-saving skills when a German cave scientist sustained a head injury deep within the Riesending Cave in Bavaria, near the German border with Austria.

It took 12 days and more than 700 people to bring him back to the surface from a depth of 3,000 feet. It was the biggest cave rescue mission ever organized and the first one that brought together rescuers from five different countries. ECRA members say that 2014 mission gave them the experience they needed to execute the rescue mission in Morca in such a short time.

A heroic rescue

 “It was much harder than in Germany, we had to be fast because we were afraid he would die”, says Marko Rakovac, a member of the Croatian mountain rescue service who also participated in Riesending cave rescue.

To execute a cave rescue, team members are typically assigned to different parts of the route where they wait for the stretcher. Transporting the injured person is slow and exhausting because the stretcher has to be pulled on a rope, from one anchor to another. In vertical shafts, this is achieved with the help of the pulley system and the counterweight—the latter often the rescuers themselves.

“This time we decided to organize rescuers in self-sufficient teams that would move through longer parts of the cave, from one camp to another,” explained Novosel.

Down in the cold and wet cave, the rescue was gruelling. Rescuers worked for twenty hours at a time, only to struggle to find a place to rest, some of them sleeping on the wet floor, surrounded by the smell of human secretion.

“The team who needed more than 20 hours to transport Dickey to 2,200 feet had to go back down to 3,200 feet to find a place for sleep. After a few hours rest they headed back up to 1,600 feet to work in the next section,” describes Rakovac.

The journey wasn’t without its setbacks. Partway through the transport, Dickey’s condition faltered, alarming the medical team. In a narrow cave passage, another blood transfusion wouldn’t be possible. And while navigating a vertical passage at around 2,200 feet, a large piece of rock detached, squeezing the ankle of a Bulgarian rescuer who narrowly evaded life-threatening injury.

“It had at least [600 pounds]. We had to move the rock so he could pull the leg out. There were twenty people in that section, and everybody went quiet, pondering that we now potentially have two victims,” says Rakovac.

The especially narrow passages—while not particularly difficult for a fit caver—remained the biggest problem during the rescue transport.

It would take too long to physically widen the most problematic passages, says Conti. After consulting with a doctor, they decided to have Dickey navigate the most difficult passages by himself.

After he was successfully rescued, Dickey was flown to nearby Mercin City Hospital to receive medical treatment. Speaking to ABC News, Dickey expressed gratitude and relief: “Cavers are like family, and every step of the way I had people by my side. Once we started moving, it happened a lot faster than I expected”

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