SWISS students in good health after cave ordeal

Sunday, May 20th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

DELEMONT, Switzerland (AP) _ Seven Swiss students and their guide said Sunday that they sang and played games to keep their spirits up while trapped on a ledge for three days in a flooded cave in nearby France.

``It was tough because we couldn't sleep _ half an hour, one hour at the most,'' one of the cavers told Swiss television. ``But we did activities together _ aerobics, and some games. We sang together.''

The identities of the eight adventurers, who were on a confidence-building trip from a Swiss college, were not released. After being rescued Saturday, they were kept at a hospital in Delemont overnight and allowed to return home Sunday.

``Happy ending to an idiotic escapade,'' a headline in the Sunday newspaper read above a full-page photograph of rescuers leading a soaked but smiling woman out of the muddy nightmare.

Meanwhile, criticism mounted over the decision to press ahead with the expedition to the cave near the French-Swiss border, despite warnings of the dangers posed by torrential rain.

The seven social work students from a Zurich college and a guide from the Basel-based tour company Altamira set out for the cave Wednesday.

But heavy rains raised water levels in a nearby river, sending a torrent of floodwater rushing into the cave and trapping the students as they were heading back toward the entrance, another of the cavers said.

He said they decided to wait for help in a dry, raised area rather than take any risks.

``The most difficult moment for me was when I realized I was a prisoner,'' he told Swiss television.

Some 300 French and Swiss experts labored to rescue them. On Friday, divers found them huddled together about 265 feet from the entrance and were able to bring the cavers clothes, food and drinking water.

They were finally evacuated Saturday evening after heavy pumping equipment and controlled explosions around the cave entrance succeeded in lowering water levels.

On Sunday, all eight were declared healthy and free to go home, said Peter Anker, director of the Delemont hospital.

``It was thanks to a solidarity of the group that they found the resources and strength to survive and continue,'' said Dominique Baettig, a hospital psychiatrist.

Experts say that under good weather conditions, the shallow, winding cave known as ``Bief-du-Parou,'' or the Parou Canal, is not technically difficult. But they said that the cave is known to fill suddenly with ground water after heavy rains.

David Caillol, a rescuer from the French Spelunkers' Society, criticized Altamira for leading the group into the cave ``in a careless way ... without even warning the people of the risk they were running.''