Trapped for Life: America’s Most Famous Cave Rescue

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An Underground Rescue Effort That Riveted the World

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We’ve been riveted by the cave rescue in Thailand and watching as 12 boys were successfully rescued in a harrowing extraction. This incident reminds us of another underground rescue attempt—America’s most famous cave entrapment. Floyd Collins became pinned in Mammoth Cave, some 125 feet from the entrance and 55 feet below ground, in 1925. The entire country was transfixed by attempts to save him. Read about this historical event, courtesy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac archives.

Eighty years ago, one man’s curiosity led to the most famous rescue drama of the time.

On the chilly, windy Friday morning of January 30, 1925, a 37-year-old Kentucky farmer and intrepid cave explorer named Floyd Collins squeezed his lanky, rawboned, 160-pound frame deep into a cave he had discovered a few miles from his Barren County home, just outside of Cave City. He was searching not for adventure but for hope for a new life. Just down the road, Mammoth Cave attracted thousands of tourists. Caves for the new automobile traveler had become a cash crop in Kentucky.    

Image: American cave explorer Floyd Collins in 1924 in Cave City, Kentucky. Photo credit: Wade Highbaugh/courtesy Robert W. Brucker   

Still, not just any cave would do. Eight years earlier, Floyd had discovered one of Kentucky’s most beautiful caves. He had named it Crystal Cave for the gypsum flowers that shined like crystals when his lantern light settled on them. But Crystal was too remote for most tourists. Floyd believed that his latest discovery, an opening he called Sand Cave, might lead into Mammoth, like a tributary feeding into a river. If it did, surely a steady stream of tourists and fame and fortune lay just beyond the darkness.

On this morning, he descended into the shaft as he had done on other days. Crawling homeward, some 120 feet from the entrance and 55 feet underground, he knocked over his oil lamp and was plunged into total darkness. Floyd squirmed headfirst toward the cave’s mouth, until, with one thrust, his foot dislodged an overhanging boulder from the cave wall. The boulder fell, pinning his left ankle in a narrow crevice. The more he fought to free himself, the more rock and debris he tore loose. Soon the cave held him in an ever-tightening vise.

Image: Floyd, who had been caving since childhood, had experience crawling through narrow places. This picture of him was taken in a Kentucky cavern, about ten days before he entered Sand Cave.

Floyd, who had been crawling into caves since boyhood, had been in tight spots before, but never one in which he felt so helpless. His hands had become scraped and bloody from clawing at rocks. Icy snowmelt dripped through the cave’s ceiling onto his face. The damp ground in the 54°F chamber chilled him. Even knowing that it would be hours before family and friends missed him, he yelled for help until he lost his voice. Alone with his thoughts, surely one memory crisscrossed through his mind: A day earlier, he had told his stepmother, Miss Jane, that he’d dreamed about being trapped by a rock in his new cave, and angels had come for him. About his latest discovery, she had warned, “Don’t go back in there, Floyd.”

Image: The profile of Sand Cave depicts accurate horizontal and vertical distances. The drop-down cutaways indicate the shape and relative size of the cave shaft in specific places. Credit: Roger W. Brucker

“I’m Trapped, and Trapped for Life”

On Saturday morning, neighbors found Floyd’s coat hanging just inside the entrance to the cave. They crawled through the narrow passage until they heard him cry out, and then set about gathering a rescue team.

Floyd’s younger brother, Homer, was one of the first to reach him. Floyd’s body, pinned tightly between the cave’s walls, blocked Homer’s attempts to reach his foot. The best Homer could do was scrape some dirt away, feed him sausages and coffee, and place an oilcloth over his face to relieve the torture of the incessantly dripping cold water. He watched his brother slip in and out of consciousness and heard him say over and over, “Take me home to bed, Homer.” Later, to another neighbor who crawled in, Floyd said, “I’m trapped for life.”

On day three of the entrapment, the Louisville Courier-Journal dispatched a 21-year-old reporter named William “Skeets” Miller to the scene. When he arrived at the cave, Miller asked Homer for details. Homer, his nerves frayed and body weary, snapped, “If you want information, there’s the hole right over there. You can go down and find out for yourself.”

Later Miller said, “I was ashamed not to go.” Terrified, yet spurred by his journalistic duty, Miller entered the cave with Homer, not knowing that soon his life would be inextricably and forever linked to that of the trapped man.

A Media Sensation

Miller’s coverage transformed a local tragedy into a national drama. (The stories later earning him a Pulitzer.)

Reporter William “Skeets” Miller visited the trapped Collins and chronicled the tragedy. Credit: The Courier-Journal.

His descriptions of Floyd’s plight riveted the nation:

“Floyd Collins is suffering torture almost beyond description… . [He] has been in agony every conscious moment since he was trapped… . Before I could see his face, … I was forced to raise a small piece of oilcloth covering it.

“‘Put it back,’ he said. ‘Put it back—the water!’ … I tried to squirm over Collins’s body to reach the rock, until he begged me to get off. ‘It hurts—hurts awful,’ he said. Collins is lying on his back, resting more on the left side. His two arms are held fast in the crevice beside his body, so that he really is in a natural straightjacket.”

Each day’s papers brought new stories from Miller, the only reporter to reach Floyd’s side. His words went out to more than 1,200 Associated Press–affiliated newspapers and became the historical and emotional witness to the struggle to free Floyd from his tomb.

Readers followed the excruciating rescue attempts. One involved yanking a rope attached to a harness around Floyd’s torso—until he screamed, “Stop! It’s pulling me in two!” Miller himself tried in vain to rig a jack under a crowbar in a desperate effort to pry loose the rock. Through it all, the reporter gave the trapped man a voice and an uncommon dignity in what has been called the most unusual interview in the history of American journalism—one man talking, one man listening in a dark hole, lit only by a dim light.

“‘I prayed as hard as I could… . [And] sometimes I would be in a stupor. I could hear people coming in, but they seemed far away… . I dreamed of angels… . I have faced death before. It doesn’t frighten me. But it is so long. Oh, God, be merciful! I know I am going to get out. I feel it. Something tells me to be brave and I’m going to be… . Tell everybody outside that I love every one of them, and tell them I am not going to give up.’”

In the early hours of the fifth day, the cave’s walls collapsed, cutting Floyd off from his rescuers, from food, and from hope. The last words rescuers heard from him were, “You’re too slow. Too slow.”

Yet they didn’t give up. In a race against time, engineers concentrated all their efforts into sinking a shaft that would lead to Floyd’s chamber. If they could dig two feet an hour, there was a chance—but the muck and rock fought back. Sometimes, they advanced only a few inches per hour. A rift developed between the locals and the outside “experts.” Homer insisted that the only way to get Floyd out alive was to continue through the cave’s entrance. He became so insistent that state officials barred him from the cave.

On Sunday, February 8, in a tragic and bizarre twist of fate, Floyd himself became the tourist attraction he had sought for so long, as thousands of curious people roamed the area. Everyone seemed to want to be a part of America’s most compelling story. Vendors sold balloons, hot dogs, pies, and snake-oil remedies. Traffic was backed up for miles.

The rescue dragged on for another week, finally ending on February 16, when a worker made his way down the shaft and shined a light on Floyd’s corpse. A physician estimated that somehow Floyd had stayed alive until only a few days earlier.

The nation’s press departed. The curious followed. The state claimed that it was too dangerous to remove the body, but Homer hired miners to bring Floyd home.

The Tale Turns Bizarre

On April 26, Floyd was laid to rest again in a grave beside the Flint Ridge family homestead—but he would not find peace for more than 60 years.

Floyd’s father sold Crystal Cave to a local dentist. The dentist had Floyd’s body placed in a glass-topped casket inside the cave on June 13, 1927. 

It was a heavily-advertised tourist trap. Crowds of visitors could peer through a little window at the doomed cave explorer’s corpse. A tombstone was installed next to it that included in its epitaph: ”Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known.” 

Image: Sand Cave shelter area in the summer of 1925, after Floyd Collin’s body was removed. Credit: Russell T. Neville/courtesy Roger W. Brucker

In March 1929, the body disappeared! It was found hours later with the help of bloodhounds, at the edge of the Green River. The remains—one leg was missing—were returned to the cave.

In 1961, Crystal Cave was sold to the federal government, which now inherited the sticky problem of what to do with the body. They let it lie. Floyd was still in the cave.

Over time, Floyd’s relatives pressured the National Park Service to release his body for burial near the ancestral home. On March 24, 1989, the body was buried for the final time at the Mammoth Cave Baptist Church Cemetery on Flint Ridge.

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About The Author

Mel Allen

Mel Allen is the editor of Yankee Magazine, only the fifth editor in Yankee’s nearly 90-year history. Read More from Mel Allen

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