SWISS vacationers rescued from flooded cave in France

Saturday, May 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GOUMOIS, France (AP) _ Eight exhausted Swiss tourists, covered with mud but still wearing their cavers' helmets, emerged Saturday from a dank underground cave, three days after floodwaters trapped them in a world of darkness and fear.

Dozens of rescue workers broke into applause as divers brought out the first group, three young women, followed by the remaining five men. Some broke into tears upon emerging from the cave shortly before sunset.

``Thank you for the help. Thank you for everything,'' one of the Swiss vacationers told LCI television.

Medical workers rushed to assist the eight weary vacationers, wrapping them in blankets. They were taken by ambulance to a medical unit set up near the cave in eastern France.

The eight amateur explorers _ seven students and a teacher on a confidence-building trip _ had gone into the cave 2 miles from the Swiss border on Wednesday, despite warnings of bad weather.

Heavy rains sent a torrent of floodwater rushing into the cave, trapping them. On Friday, rescuers found the eight vacationers huddled together about 265 feet from the cave entrance in one of two cavities known to have air pockets.

Divers who reached them Friday reported the Swiss alive and in good spirits. They brought the cavers warm clothes, food and drinking water but were unable to bring them out because of high water levels. Rain overnight delayed the rescue.

On Saturday, crews used 10 giant pumps and set off small targeted explosives to help drain the water from the cave.

Rescuers then brought the trapped tourists to the surface with a rope pulley system that enabled the cavers to walk their way out. Each of the spelunkers walked a short distance along the side of the cave wall with the aid of ropes.

Officials said there was less of a concern of hypothermia because the cavers were able to keep dry during their ordeal.

Known as ``Bief-du-Parou,'' or Parou Canal, the cave is considered ideal for beginning spelunkers _ in the right conditions, experts said. Though it is not deep, the cave wends its way over some 415 yards.

The eight vacationers are from the Social Workers College of Zurich and had undertaken the tour to help develop their ability to face challenges.