A series of small accidents
How an IU student was locked in a cave for three days
By Sarah Verschoor
For three days and three nights, the freshman hung on in the darkness, alternating between anger and resignation, hope and hopelessness.
“Help,” 19-year-old Lukas Cavar called out. “Is anyone out there?”
He was trapped inside Sullivan Cave, left behind by the Caving Club at IU.
Bats hovered. A snake bit his right hand’s middle finger. He was so hungry he licked the wrapper of a chocolate chip Clif Bar. For water, he licked the moist walls of the cave. The walls tasted like salt, and afterward he had to pick out pieces of grit stuck between his teeth.
As Sunday turned to Monday and then Tuesday, panic engulfed him. In the dim light of his iPhone, he tapped out farewell letters to loved ones.
He tried to wrangle in his emotions and think rationally. He wondered when he would be rescued. He wondered if anyone would come for him at all.
When Cavar was at his weakest, when hunger and thirst overwhelmed him, he curled into the fetal position and slept. He dreamt someone, anyone, would rescue him.
Deep into the third night, he woke to a white light. He wasn’t sure if he was still dreaming. He had forgotten where he was. Three days had passed since he entered the cave with the club, and three days had passed since he’d been locked inside.
As he came to his senses, he realized someone was shining a flashlight at him. Someone had come back to rescue him and unlocked the gate. It was the trip leader from the Caving Club.
In the days that followed, he talked to his caving buddy and friends, trying to make sense of how he was left behind for so long. He discovered it was a series of small accidents that left his life hanging in the balance.
More than a month has gone by, and Cavar is still processing what happened. He doesn’t know exactly how to feel about the club and its leaders. He knows they made a mistake, but it was one that could have cost him his life.
Since he got out of the cave, the world looks different to him.
“It was a near death experience,” he said. “My world view buckled under the weight of that.”
Cavar recounted his experience in multiple interviews with the IDS. The two trip leaders were interviewed about two days after Cavar returned home.
The IDS was able to put some of the pieces together as to how he was left behind through interviews with Cavar and another member of the Caving Club.
The club’s descent began Sept. 17. Cavar, a physics major and son of two IU professors, walked from his dorm at Read Center to the Geology building where all the cavers met up. It was his third trip with the club.
The night before, he returned from his second trip with the Caving Club. He stayed up late Saturday night washing off his clothes and gear. Some of it was still muddy when he left the next day.
There were 12 people on the trip, including 11 students and one staff member, Kevin Romanak. Romanak led the trip.
The Caving Club members are only told the name of the cave, not where they are going.
“They don’t know the specific location,” said senior Caroline Bedwell, the trip’s assistant leader.
Only the leaders know the exact address. The group drove in three cars to Sullivan Cave, about 20 miles south of Bloomington in Springville, Indiana.
When they arrived, some went to the bathroom and others prepared their gear. Standard gear included kneepads, helmets, headlamps, backup lights, water and hiking boots.
Cavar was dressed in light clothes, knee and elbow pads and hiking boots. He had one plastic Kroger bag, two chocolate chip Clif bar wrappers, two empty water bottles, his iPhone, wallet, headphones and a helmet equipped with a light.
Each of the cavers was paired with a buddy, someone to look out for them in the cave.
The entrance to the privately-owned cave is guarded by a locked gate to prevent untrained trespassers from entering and getting hurt.
A headcount was taken before, during and after they were in the cave, said sophomore Kendall Gibson, a club member who was on the trip.
But she only remembers hearing a count for 11, not the 12 total that were on the trip, Gibson said.
The group crawled and climbed as they explored the narrow passages and large rooms of the cave. As they returned, they reached a narrow passage that forces people to hunch over while they travel through it. It’s known as the Backbreaker.
The cavers were in two groups. Cavar and his buddy were in the back group with Romanak, trailing behind Bedwell’s front group. He wanted to catch up with Bedwell’s group because at more than 6-feet tall, Cavar was uncomfortable hunched over.
“I thought, I’m not really enjoying this Backbreaker part,” Cavar said. “So I thought, I’ll just see if I could bang it out.”
He hurried along the passage. But he missed the rift in the wall that led to the exit. Cavar never made it to Bedwell’s group.
At first, he waited in place when he realized he was lost. Then with the help of graffiti arrows on the wall, he managed to backtrack until he found the rift.
He made it to the exit and climbed up the notched wall to the gate. But it was locked, and the others were already gone.
Sullivan Cave is privately owned by the Indiana Karst Conservancy, a nonprofit cave preservation organization. Cavers must get permission and a key to enter the cave, according to the conservancy’s website.
A gate on the entrance protects the 9.63 miles of passage in Sullivan Cave. It’s Indiana’s fourth longest cave, with many open spaces in the cave like the waterfall room. Sullivan River flows through it.
Caves are cold places, too. The typical Indiana cave temperature is around 54 degrees, according to an Indiana Geological Survey book titled “A Guide to Caves and Karst of Indiana.”
Sullivan Cave is home to populations of Pipistrelle, Little Brown and Indiana bats. They live alongside crayfish, salamanders, beetles and other creatures.
Previous owners faced problems with vandalism and the traffic and noise of visitors. So in 1990, the Central Indiana Grotto, a branch of the National Speleological Society, placed a gate on Sullivan’s main entrance. Their intention, the conservancy’s site says, was to protect the cave while keeping it open to responsible cavers.
Bedwell’s group emerged from the cave first. Bedwell was in a rush to get back for work, so they switched who rode in which car, Gibson said.
In the shuffle, Cavar went unnoticed.
“I don’t know what made him so forgettable,” Gibson said.
The rest of the club made it out around 2:30 p.m., Cavar said.
Cavar made it to the entrance at 3 p.m.
He missed the rest of the group by just half an hour. He yelled, for an hour, for two and then six before he knew it. He wanted to get the attention of cars passing by on nearby State Road 54.
On Monday, thirst and hunger overwhelmed Cavar. He longed for chicken lo mein, maybe from Chow Bar or LongFei.
“There wasn’t that much going on in my head, which is kind of nice on some level,” he said. “I’d rather deal with physical pain than existential fear.”
His phone battery died Monday night. But he still had the light from his helmet and the sunlight that came down through the gate’s slats.
He bottled his urine, Bear Grylls-style. But it was too cold and too humid to recycle the urine into something drinkable. Even so, it helped to occupy his mind.
“It gave me hope to experiment with stuff like that,” Cavar said.
The third day — Tuesday — was the roughest, he said. The cold was wearing him down. He considered eating crickets.
It’s not entirely clear why it took the Caving Club so long to realize Cavar was missing.
Monday, Cavar was supposed to be in physics class. He had a take home test due. When friends talked to Cavar’s professor to see if he had received the test, the professor said yes.
But Cavar was far from a classroom.
It wasn’t until late Tuesday night people finally acted on Cavar’s disappearance.
Someone on the Read RA staff reported Cavar missing, IUPD Captain Craig Munroe said in an email.
An officer searched Cavar’s dorm. There was still muddy gear in the room from his prior trip that could have led police to believe he returned, Cavar said.
Then the officer tried to call Bedwell.
But it wasn’t IUPD who tipped her off. Bedwell received a concerned Facebook message from one of Cavar’s friends, freshman Sam Mehay, who worried that he might be missing and still be in the cave.
Mehay went to Bloomington High School South with Cavar. Cavar is really quiet and nice, she said. Sometimes he takes walks in the middle of the night.
So when Mehay didn’t see him in their Tuesday class, C104: Language Hotspots and Biodiversity, it wasn’t that out of the ordinary.
Tuesday night, Mehay went to see the movie “It.” When she came out of the movie, she had a bunch of messages from mutual friends of Cavar. They noticed he hadn’t been in any of his classes or gone to work.
So Mehay decided it was time to reach out to the Caving Club. She messaged Bedwell and called her twice via Facebook.
“We’re looking into it,” Mehay roughly remembers Bedwell responding.
After Bedwell received the message, she called Romanak, and the two drove separately to the cave around 11 p.m. They weren’t completely certain Cavar would be there, she said.
At some point, Cavar thought he saw a light. When he realized the light was real, he scrambled to the locked gate.
On the other side, he saw Romanak.
“The guy who locked me in the cave, who actually physically turned the lock, was the same guy who unlocked the cave and got me out, three days and three nights later,” Cavar said.
Romanak, a certified EMT, performed a routine medical exam. He asked Cavar to say his name, where he was, the time of year.
It was near midnight, and other rescuers were arriving. Romanak arrived first, then Bedwell. Both of the leaders have cave rescue training from the National Cave Rescue Commission.
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources cave rescue team was dispatched, too. But no one from the team came. All the officers on the 8-person squad were more than half an hour away, said James Hash, conservation officer and cave rescue team member.
The trip leaders asked Cavar if he wanted to go to the hospital. He said he wanted to go back to his dorm.
If a rescued person is able to recall his birthday, name and where he is located, and he doesn’t ask to receive medical attention, rescuers won’t take the him or her to the hospital, Hash said.
“Somebody can be dehydrated and hungry but still have good cognition,” Hash said.
Before he left the cave, Cavar remembered to carry out his waste from the previous three days. It’s common caving etiquette to remove feces after a trip. That’s one reason they knew he was OK.
Bedwell offered him a pair of fresh socks and a sweatshirt. Romanak brought him water, pasta and a leftover Big Mac. Cavar said they apologized profusely.
“You could tell they were pretty shaken up,” he said. “They did near kill me.”
Cavar returned to his dorm early Wednesday morning. Romanak drove him.
“Just wanted to let everyone know that I’m safe and sound!” he wrote on his Facebook page just after 1 a.m. “Just got rescued about 30 minutes ago. Boy, it’s good to be back on the surface!”
The Caving Club refused to explain how he was left behind in the days after his rescue.
“It’s a sensitive legal matter,” Bedwell said.
Back on the surface, back on campus, Cavar took Wednesday to recuperate.
Cavar was reunited with his dad for breakfast the morning after the rescue. His parents were both stressed out during his disappearance. His dad was still out of sorts that morning, he said.
“We were very worried about you, Lukas,” he remembers his dad saying. “I can’t believe this happened.”
His parents are both angry at the club, he said, and blame them completely.
Thursday, he returned to class and his job moving books around at Herman B Wells library. His voice was soft and hoarse from all the yelling.
Later, he got his chicken lo mein for dinner.
While his everyday routine slowly returned, the national spotlight shined on Cavar. The story reached beyond the Herald-Times, Bloomington’s local newspaper — the New York Times, the Associated Press, the BBC and many other national newspapers recounted his experience.
In the following days, the Caving Club at IU was suspended. IU announced an Office of Student Conduct investigation into the alleged dangerous and disruptive incident, according to the statement.
While the University continues to evaluate the Caving Club’s actions, Cavar does as well. For the three long days he was trapped, he felt angry at the leaders, then resigned and hopeless. He’s still working through it.
If there’s anything he has taken away, it’s to learn to focus on the present.
“When you are reminded of death like that, the way you view the world is subject to change,” Cavar said. “We don’t think about that sort of thing very often.”
When he came out of the cave, Cavar felt happy, he said. He couldn’t imagine the guilt Romanak and Bedwell felt. And while they were the ones to leave him behind, they were also the ones to save him.
“They did a really stupid thing, but in the end, they are good people,” Cavar said. “I don’t know if I ought to be angry at them for that.”