Just before noon Thursday, German rescuers brought spelunker and physicist Johann Westhauser into the light, ending an 11 day rescue effort that had millions in this nation holding their breath, and debating the difficulty of keeping him alive as a rescue team moved from bivouac to bivouac deep under the Bavarian Alps.
Westhauser, a researcher, had been injured and trapped more than half a mile underground on June 8 in a recently discovered cave named only "the Giant Thing."
He had descended into the unmapped and relatively unknown cave as part of an effort to fully map the thing, which was first discovered only in 1995. The cave opens into the mountains not far from Adolf Hitler’s notorious Eagles Nest, a mountain hideaway. While never fully explored, the cave is thought to be about 12 miles long, though he was not quite half way in when injured.
"Rescued" was the one word headline in the online edition of the newspaper Bild Thursday as the news broke. The news magazine Focus noted the end of "the chronicle of the cave drama."
Across Germany, from the day when the accident became public knowledge, broadcasters would open nightly newscasts by relating the impossibly slow progress of rescue teams, and the dire nature of Westhauser’s injuries. The story dribbled out, complete with graphics showing the extent of the cave, and the danger.
Westhauser had been injured during an underground rock slide. The head injury he’d sustained when at least one rock hit him was said to require the intensive care ward of a hospital. The rock strike was intense enough to injure him despite protective gear, including a helmet.
Instead, he had to survive for three days after the injury without medical attention, in the near freezing and lightless rock walls, as a doctor made his way through the cave to him. The doctor was able to stabilize Westhauser, but unable to fully treat him so far from a hospital, or even light.
The cave drama was the only story capable of knocking World Cup soccer news (where the German team is among the favorites to win) from the top spot of newscasts and newspapers. The news here took on an element of an evening soap opera.
By the end, 728 workers from five Alpine countries helped rescue the technician and speleologist at the Karlsruhe Institute for Applied Psychics, a part of Karlsruhe Technology University.
The drama unfolded in stages, or bivouacs. But news stories always mentioned the last as the most difficult, a 180 meter straight fall, or climb. Westhauser, one of the discoverers of the cave and one of its most frequent explorers, had to be placed in a high tech Styrofoam stretcher that was formed around his body in the cave. The cave was too narrow and cramped to allow workers to carry him, so he had to be hauled over the cave floor, and up and down the many drops and climbs.
His head was encased both to protect him from further injury, and shield him from the sound of his encased body being dragged through the rocky and uneven cave floor.
The cave boasts several waterfalls, and a 30 yard long lake, which requires an inflatable raft to cross. And the temperatures in the cave varied between about 33 and 43 degrees, making it cold rescue work.
News reports Thursday noted that he was still alive, though no long term prognosis was available so soon after leaving the cave.