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Caught in a Crevice

The force of the fall left Seth Rowe wedged in the crevice like a cork in a bottle. It would take 50 firefighters, 22 hours and a specialized search-and-rescue operation to extract him.

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Caught in a CrevicePhoto: Barrie Fire & Emergency Service

The crevice opening is little more than a crack in the rough terrain, barely 50 centimetres wide. Curious, Seth Rowe stands at its edge, poised to go in. It’s just before noon on June 20, 2015. The sun peeks out in the Nottawasaga Bluffs, a rugged area in Ontario’s Niagara Escarpment. 

After spending the morning in some nearby caves with his friends, Rowe has lingered in the forest by himself. The plan was to meet up with his wife, Jamie, and their two kids-Joella, four, and Wyatt, 15 months-back at home and then go to an evening screening of Inside Out. 

Rowe, 30, a plumber and pipe-fitter, has turned a boyhood interest in geology into an amateur hobby: exploring caves. He loves being in places where so few have ventured. Depending on the weather, he heads out to the Bluffs every couple of weeks, usually with some of his pals. 

Today, however, he’s alone, and he has no gear-he’s never needed it on these outings. Rowe is just off a trail, a few kilometres from where he’d parked his truck. Bracing his arms on the edge of the crevice to control his descent, he breathes in deeply and exhales to relax his muscles and make his 154-pound, six-foot-tall body as small as possible. Down he goes, while his feet, in sturdy hiking shoes, cast about for purchase. 

Coming to a stop on a ledge a few metres below the opening, he turns on his cellphone and uses it to illuminate his surroundings. The walls of the icy crevice come into glittering view and his breath hovers in the sub-zero air. The smell is a mix of mould and damp earth. 

After a few minutes, Rowe knows he shouldn’t go any further. It’s time to get out. He steps onto a rock, ready to hoist himself up and out of the crevice. Suddenly, his footing gives way and Rowe slides into the black void. 

There’s no time to cry out. There would be no one to hear him if he did. 

Once he comes to a stop, Rowe takes a few minutes to catch his breath. The force of the fall has left him wedged like a cork in a bottle, with the tip of his nose squashed against one jagged wall and his back flush against the one behind him. His torn skin-face, chest, knees and posterior-is bleeding. 

He has no idea where he is or for how long he slid. It felt like forever. It wasn’t a straight drop, either. Crevices follow the whim of nature and erosion. 

Stay calm, he tells himself. 

He looks up and sees a crack of light about 20 metres above him. Phone for help, he thinks. But when he reaches for his cell, he realizes there’s no service this far underground. He tries to move upward but the crevice grips him tightly. 

One hour passes, then maybe two or three, but in the dark and with his phone’s battery now drained, Rowe loses track of time. He wonders what his family is doing. Every once in a while, he calls out, “Help! Is anyone there?” 

There’s no answer. 

He holds fast to the hope that Jamie will find him. When he doesn’t turn up at home, she’ll come looking for him. Even if he hasn’t parked in his usual spot, he has to believe she’ll locate his truck and come to his rescue. 

In the crevice, the temperature is below freezing, and he’s wearing jeans and a cotton T-shirt. He wishes he could put on the jacket he has with him, but his arms can only move slightly and he can’t reach it. He notices his hands and feet have gone numb from the cold and damp and the fact that he hasn’t moved for hours. 

That’s when he starts to pray. 

“Dear God, I got myself in here, I know,” he said. “But could you help me out? Tomorrow is Father’s Day. I want to spend it with my family.” 

Deep in the chasm, the darkness is impenetrable. Then he hears snuffling and growls from above. What is it? There is a glint from a pair of golden eyes staring through the opening. It’s a coyote, and Rowe realizes it can smell his blood. 

Frightened, he cries out, “Please, someone, help me!” 

Then he hears a voice, or thinks he does. He’s been calling out all day and worries he’s hallucinating. 

But then the voice asks, “Where are you?” It is real. He’s been found. 

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At 8:05 p.m., Jamie’s phone goes off in the movie theatre in Collingwood, 23 kilometres away, as she prepares to settle into seats with the kids. When her husband hadn’t returned home earlier that afternoon, she’d gone to look for him, but there was no sign of his truck, and he wasn’t answering his phone. 

As she listens to the hiker who found Rowe, Jamie begins to run, holding Wyatt close while dragging a protesting Joella behind her. 

A friend of Jamie’s agrees to take the kids and gets in touch with the local fire department. Within 45 minutes, Jamie is at the Bluffs. 

At the clearing where the hiker heard her husband, she kneels by the crevice and calls out: “Seth! I’m here. I love you. We want you to come home.” 

Fire Chief Colin Shewell and 14 members of the nearby Clearview Fire Department are already at the scene just before 10 p.m. when 10 more firefighters from nearby Barrie arrive to help with the rescue. Every year, people get stuck in the Nottawasaga caves. But Bill Boyes, Barrie’s deputy fire chief, quickly realizes this is going to be a difficult operation. 

There’s no obvious way to extract Rowe, who has somehow slid through a tight bottleneck in the rock. “We’ve got a call in to an off-duty guy on our force who is experienced in crevice-diving,” Boyes says. “Right now, he’s our best hope.” 

Soon after, the site is lit up like an airport landing strip. David Dunt, a firefighter and rescue expert, arrives. “Let me go down to get an overview,” he says. Thinking he will be in the crevice for 20 minutes or so, Dunt, five feet 10 inches tall and 200 pounds, puts a full-body harness on over his light clothing and claps on a hard hat with a lantern and headset. His colleagues lower him eight metres into the black. 

Landing on a narrow shelf above the bottleneck, he trains his flashlights downward. The beams catch a figure about 12 metres below him and off to an angle. In between is the opening that Rowe has been staring at for more than 10 hours, no more than 20 centimetres across, barely enough room for skinny legs to pass through, never mind a full torso. 

“Seth? I’m here to get you out,” Dunt calls out. “Have you been in crevices before?” 

“Yeah, lots of times,” Rowe replies. 

Dunt is relieved to learn that, although Rowe has no equipment, he understands the principles of caving, such as muscle relaxation, diaphragm compression, and how to use a seat harness. The immediate risk, however, is the cold. 

Hypothermia sets in when the body’s temperature drops below 35 C. Eventually, a victim will stop shivering and lose consciousness. Dunt can see Rowe is becoming tired and confused, his strength and dexterity depleting. 

“We’re racing against him freezing to death,” he reports into his headset. 

“We have to get him food and water, because we can’t get him out without his help.” 

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Dunt stays in the crevice, talking with Rowe about life, his wife and kids-anything to keep the trapped man awake. At 10:37 p.m., he helps thread a weighted rope more than 12 metres into the dark, which Rowe manages to catch and secure despite his limited motion. A rudimentary ferrying system ensures that at least Rowe has water and energy bars and a thermal blanket. 

Next, firefighters send in a rescue harness, and Dunt talks Rowe through putting it on, one tiny motion at a time. It takes half an hour, filled with scrapes, grunts and searing pain. 

“I can’t move my legs!” Rowe cries, whose numb lower body is wedged into rock. 

“You can, Seth,” Dunt reassures him. 

Finally, around 11:15 p.m., after nearly 12 hours in the crevice, Rowe is on the move. The firefighters pull him slowly, less than a centimetre at a time. Within moments Rowe is screaming. 

“Wait, wait, wait,” Dunt yells into the headset. “Talk to me, Seth!” 

But Rowe’s pain is unavoidable-his joints are being stressed and his flesh is being scraped across the rocky surface. The firefighters start again, reeling him up. One hour runs into two, then three and four. Finally, Rowe is directly under Dunt and, at least, starting to warm up thanks to a heater blasting into the crevice. But he’s still facing a major obstacle: the impossibly narrow bottleneck. 

At that point, Dunt hears rhythmic knocking like a woodpecker. He realizes it’s his own helmet hitting the wall behind him; he can’t stop shivering. I have to get out before I become useless, he thinks. 

Back on the surface, Dunt is wrapped in thermal blankets. Another firefighter goes down to keep Rowe company. 

Meanwhile, Boyes confers with Shewell again. It’s close to 3:30 a.m. and it’s clear they’re going to need more technical expertise to get Rowe through the bottleneck. Shewell calls the Ontario Provincial Emergency Operations Centre, which dispatches Toronto’s Heavy Urban Search and Rescue (HUSAR) to the scene. At 5:30 a.m. the team arrives. Dunt is happy to see his old friend Chris Rowland among them. A stocky man with a commanding voice, Rowland’s rescue expertise has earned him captaincy of the elite crew. By now, there are close to 50 firefighters and paramedics on site. Rowe has been in the crevice for more than 17 hours. 

Rowland outlines a plan: three members of the HUSAR team will get harnessed and hang upside-down so they can reach the bottleneck, where they’ll use electric chisels to enlarge the gap by about eight centimetres. 

“It should be enough for Seth to squeeze through,” Rowland says. Barring that, the only option remaining will be to dislocate Rowe’s shoulders to get him through the tight cranny. 

The last-ditch rescue operation begins at 6:14 a.m. For nearly three hours the chisels whine and echo, punctuated by Rowe’s cries as shards of rock fall on his head. The upside-down rescuers take turns coming up for breaks. 

As the clock ticks towards 9:30 a.m., the opening is wide enough to use ropes to carefully haul the still- harnessed Rowe up from the depths. 

At 9:41 a.m., nearly 22 hours after he first entered the crevice, Rowe emerges slowly from the ground, dirty and with a bleeding gash on his head. 

Jamie takes his hand. He wants to tell her something. “I want a Big Mac and fries.” 

Laughing out loud, Jamie turns to the waiting paramedics and says, “He’s fine.” 

She’s right. Miraculously, Rowe spends only one night in hospital, where he is treated for hypothermia and abrasions. 

At a celebration in Barrie on June 30-Rowe’s 31st birthday-he and his family show their appreciation for the legion of people who gave his story a happy ending. He speaks of how grateful he is. To highlight that sentiment, Joella presents a daisy to Chief Shewell of the Clearview Fire Department. 

“Thank you,” she says, “for saving my daddy.” 

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