Historically Speaking: Howard's Waterfall Cave Tragedy--The Day That Would Not End

Photo: Local resident and rescue volunteer Rudolf Thompson is given oxygen after attempting to rescue scouts from Howard's Waterfall Cave. This photo was taken by Johnny Ellison and appeared with several others on the front page of The Dade Sentinel on Thursday April 21,1966. That issue also included the Dade High honor graduates, which usually appeared as a front-page item. Rudy's daughter, Sandy Thompson (Pullen), was named valedictorian for 1966, but news of the honor took third-page placement because of the impact of the tragedy. Thank you to Larry Moore for the use of the photo, which was a gift from Rudy.

Howard's Waterfall Cave Tragedy, Part III

Samuel L. Jackson is one of my favorite film actors. He grew up in Chattanooga; reared by his grandparents. He became famous for playing some gory, odd and interesting characters in films, on television and on Broadway. In April of 1966, when he was a senior in high school, there was a day when he was featured in the Chattanooga papers as the Fellowship of Christian Athletes' Young Man of the Year, but his award was but a blip on the radar compared to the coverage of the tragedy that was reported in that Sunday’s paper. The Howard's Waterfall Cave accident story appeared in The Dade Sentinel, The Chattanooga Times, The Chattanooga Free Press, The Washington Post and The New York Times, and it was spun across the globe by United Press International and the Associated Press.

The explosion, described in a previous segment, occurred around lunchtime on Saturday, April 16, 1966. According to The Chattanooga Times (April 17, 1966, p. 6), by 4:30 p.m. that Saturday there were over 200 Civil Defense and rescue unit workers from the tri-state area who had arrived to assist.

By that time, Benny Gilley and Rusty Mills had been removed from the cave and were pronounced dead at the scene. Young Buddy Norris, who had been burned severely by the carbide light that he carried, and the other scout leader, Mike Moss, had been removed to Erlanger in Chattanooga. When he was released, Mike Moss returned to the scene to check on the rest of his scout troop.

Several members of the West Georgia Grotto had escaped or been removed from the cave. David Young and Don Going, who had been pulled up a rope in order to be removed, were taken to the hospital for breathing issues. At Erlanger, Young kept asking, “Where is Mills?” By then, of course, Rusty Mills was gone.

All the Scouts save three and their remaining leader, Howell, were rescued over the next six hours. Equipment was never sufficient to allow responders to stay in the cave very long, even though they had brought 16 tanks from the No. 3 Fire hall in Chattanooga.

National Cylinder Gas Co., which produced nitrogen, stopped production for the afternoon and switched to compressed air to refill the tanks that had been emptied. Until the Air National Guard arrived with scuba equipment, there was always the danger of entering the cave and either being overcome by the fumes or losing one’s life because of inadequate equipment.

Several people were overcome by the fumes. One such was local resident Rudolf Thompson, who at the end of his life was employed as a bailiff at the Dade County Courts.

The crowd had grown to 500 silent onlookers who stood on the red clay banks surrounding the entrance to the cave. One of the men said, “We’re like a bunch of people fighting unknown ghosts.” It was reported that workers rigged search lights on the bluff above the mouth of the cave during the nightlong struggle. “It’s a matter of time, strength and good shoes,” said one of the rescue workers.

Around midnight three remaining scouts, Chris Shannon, Mike Strickland and Doug Fleming, were extricated from the cave and transported to Erlanger. The body of Scout leader Phil Howell had been removed also.

The next day the scene was again crowded with a reported 1000 sightseers, who tramped through what had been the city dump outside the cave entrance. The debris left from the blast, mixed with the heavy foot traffic of rescue personnel, and followed by interested viewers, left the landscape quite different than 24 hours earlier.

The men who died were too young. Phil Howell, 27, was a college graduate, a veteran of Vietnam (which was not even listed as a war) and an employee of Nabisco. Rusty Mills, 19, of Morrow, Georgia, must have loved caving, because a few weeks before this incident he had discovered or helped discover a cave near Rising Fawn which is part of the Fox Mountain Preserve in Alabama. The cave was named Rusty’s Cave in his honor. Benny Gilley, 19, was a very popular young man who touched the lives of many people that he never knew because of his simple act of heroism.

It was months and months before the true cause of the fierceness of the explosion was determined. It was a gas leak from the gas tanks across the road at the Red Ace station, then owned by Marlon Higdon. Some had thought that it was methane gas because of the city dump. Not so.

Plans are to complete this series with remembrances of those who are still living who were directly involved on that day. Thank all for continuing to share your memories of this event.

NOTE: Please put the Historical Society Cemetery Walk on Saturday, May 19, from 4-6 p.m. on your calendar. Our actors are preparing to portray the people who will ​​be featured at Payne and Baptist Cemeteries. There is no charge, but donations are appreciated and proceeds will go to the renovation of the old Dade County Courthouse.

--Donna M. Street donnam.street@gmail.com

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