(Black and white pictures from Phil Schmidt. I don't have names. DMS)
Saturday, April 16, 1966, dawned cool but clear, a perfect day for outdoor activity or even underground activity for those who were interested in spelunking or caving. At least two groups of cavers were pursuing the underground pleasures of caves in Dade County that morning, but before the sun had set, one member of each
group and a local young man would be dead, and a fourth would be severely burned. The lives of the other cavers would never be the same. Several hundred volunteers, if not a thousand, would also find their lives altered by what they experienced.
Scout Explorer Post 76 of Atlanta rose early and headed to Trenton for an adventure. The troop consisted of Mike Moss, 21, leader; Phil Howell, 25, co-leader; Mike Strickland, 15; Chris Shannon, 14; Doug Fleming, 15; Barry Sharpe, 15; Robert Nelson, 15; Mike Hopton; Kenny Korizon, 15; Henry Brown; Robbie Helms, 15; and Buddy Norris, 16. They were headed to Howard’s Waterfall Cave on Back Valley Road. The cave was well known as a good cave for beginners.
Across town and at the base of Lookout Mountain another group from West Georgia College was spending the morning in Case Cave. This group included Rusty Mills, David Young, Ronnie Aycock, Dusty Waters, Sam Couch and Don Going.
Early that morning Benny Gilley, 19, well-known local youth leader and service station attendant, called his friend Ken Pennington for a ride to a local garage where he was planning to purchase a motor.
The lives of all three groups intersected when the Boy Scouts entered the cave at approximately 12:30 p.m. They began their investigation of the cave. Surely there was some fear but probably a great deal more excitement. Young Norris was using a carbide light, which under normal conditions would have been fine. On this day it caused an explosion because the cave had filled with gas from a nearby filling station. The blast was heard and felt as far away as three miles.
News of the explosion spread fast through the community. Volunteers from around the tri-state area began to gather. The caving group from West Georgia had just emerged from Case Cave to take a lunch break and they rushed to the site. Thinking that they had the skill and appropriate equipment for a rescue attempt, Rusty Mills, a member of the Dogwood City Grotto and a National Speleological Society (NSS) member prepared to enter the cave. Benny Gilley arrived at the site and since he lived near the cave assumed that he was knowledgeable enough to be of assistance. He joined Mills and several other member of the group as they prepared to enter the cave by a 40-foot incline, on a rope. “They were unaware of the toxic fumes and lack of oxygen in the lower cave levels,” stated the NSS News, Vol. 24(5):84).
Several of the scouts had made it out of the cave, but three were left stranded on a ledge above leader Howell, who was trying to ensure that they were as safe as he could possibly make them. The gas had begun to affect him by the time that he was reached by Rusty Mills, who was followed closely by Benny Gilley.
By the time Mills reached Phil Howell he realized that the mask which he was using was not sufficient to help him and began to exit. Gilley had entered the cave with no mask or any type of protection. According to the three trapped scouts, their leader had become incoherent and was “acting funny” and he knocked the flashlight out of the hand of Rusty Mills. The bodies of Rusty and Benny were found very near each other as they attempted to leave the cave before succumbing to the gas.
The three scouts left in the cave were: Mike Strickland, the son of an Atlanta policeman, Doug Fleming and Chris Shannon. They reported that the last thing their leader said to them was, “I’m sorry to tell you, but I think I’m blacking out.” They later reported that each of them had blacked out over the time they spent in the cave after the explosion.
By 2 p.m. there were three young men dead, one scout was burned badly, and three were still trapped. Those who escaped immediately were the seven remaining scouts and their other leader, Mike Moss, a Georgia State student. Moss was taken to Erlanger because of the fumes and later returned. Scout Norris was removed to Erlanger because of burns from the blast. The fire had literally blown his clothes off. Don Going from the West Georgia cavers was lifted from the cave by a rope and evacuated to Erlanger.
According to the Chattanooga Times on Sunday, April 17, 1966, page 6, “The body of Mills was brought out of the cave at 4 p.m., a little over an hour after he had entered it in a futile rescue attempt. The body of young Gilley was taken from the cave about 20 minutes later. Both were pronounced dead at the mouth of the cave by doctors who had rushed to the scene.”
At 4:20 there were still boys trapped in the cave and volunteers were finding it impossible to make much headway on the recovery because of the limited breathing equipment that was available at the time. Newspapers from all over the United States reported at least a thousand people standing vigil until well after midnight when the recovery was complete.
(Cave photo from the SCCI website)
Note: This incident informed my early teenaged year. The effect on my psyche was not unlike that of the Kennedy assassinations or that of Dr. King. It has always lingered in my mind. If you grew up here then you probably have similar feelings.
In 2013, an email was directed to me for a historical inquiry. That email started my quest to tell the rest of this story. Another part of this series will detail the lives of the young men who died and hopefully some about those who survived. Another portion or two will chronicle the emergency workers and volunteers who were so ready to help on that April day and night.
If you have memories of that day that you might like to share, please contact me by phone. My number is still in the book. My email address is email@example.com.