An experienced caver and his novice colleague probably died because they tried to escape from a flooded cave, rather than staying put, an inquest heard today.
The entrance to Long Churn Cave
Engineer Caroline Fletcher, 28, perished on her first trip underground in the Yorkshire Dales. She drowned, along with her workmate Stuart Goodwill, 33, after heavy rain turned an underground stream into a torrent. A team from the Cave Rescue Organisation found the pair entangled in ropes in Lower Long Churn Cave, near Selside, Ribblesdale.
Coroner Geoff Fell, sitting at Skipton Magistrates Court, North Yorkshire, heard evidence from Dave Gallivan, of the Clapham-based volunteer organisation. Mr Gallivan, who supervised the rescue, said he thought the two cavers may have tried to get out of the cave because they were wet and cold. One of the pair is thought to have fallen into a pool and pulled the other into the water.
Torrential rain earlier in the day meant the underground stream which runs through the Long Churn-Alum Pot system had turned into a raging underground river. Mr Gallivan said: “The volume of water going down the cave is so strong that you would not stand a chance.”
About 25mm of rainfall had fallen in the day before the accident and all guided trips had been cancelled that day.
He said it was likely they thought it was dangerous to stay in the cave and needed to attempt to exit the system.
“We will never know what happened, but my assumption is that if they could have stayed and waited it out they would have been fine,” Mr Gallivan told the inquest.
“Their decision to exit the cave for whatever reason was their mistake.”
Mr Goodwill, an outdoor enthusiast who first went caving at the age 16, initially took Ms Fletcher, a keen rockclimber, to Yordas Cave, 8km (5 miles) away in Kingsdale, north of Ingleton. Mr Gallivan said: “He may have gone down and realised the water levels were too high and they may even have been hit by a small flood pulse which could have quite quickly and easily made them very cold.
“The decision was where to go next and it seems they were lulled into Long Churn.”
Mr Gallivan told the inquest that the system was the most popular with cavers in the country and ideal for learners, but in times of heavy rain the water could collect and run into the caves.
He said: “The caving system reacts quite quickly to any level of rain. To my knowledge no-one else had gone in the system that day.”
The CRO supervisor told the inquest that Long Churn contains two ‘oxbows’ which go round the main passage where the torrential water was running. They could have sheltered here.
He said: “They had managed to get to the first oxbow where they would have been stood slightly above the main body of water. I believe their plan was to go across the stream to the second oxbow and then the exit.”
Mr Gallivan told the coroner that he thought it likely Mr Goodwill tried to do this and then went back to help his fellow caver. They then lost their footing and became entangled, were swept downstream and drowned.
They were found in a metre (three feet) of water at 3.20am on 28 December last year.
Cavers emerge from the Long Churn system
“Where they were found I would have thought that the water levels would have been fairly high. They had no chance of getting out,” Mr Gallivan said.
Recording a verdict of accidental death on both Ms Fletcher and Mr Goodwill, coroner Geoff Fell said he believed Mr Goodwill made what he thought was the right decision for both of them in the cave.
“As an experienced caver Stuart would have been reluctant to leave her. He would have been concerned for her and her general wellbeing,” he said.
“It is easy for me to say they should have stayed until the water in the oxbow went down but I wasn’t there. I do not know what decision Stuart and Caroline had to make.
“North Yorkshire has a great many activities. By all means, enjoy these activities but do plan. There is always a risk and I have to say that if risks weren’t involved people would not do it anyway.”
Mr Fell offered his condolences to the families.
In a statement, Ms Fletcher’s father Paul Fletcher said his daughter: ‘always tried to improve herself’ at work and that Caroline’s death had hit the family very hard.
He said: “Caroline was the life and soul of any party. She would walk into a room without knowing anyone and within a couple of minutes would know everyone.
“Caroline loved music and she played guitar in a band. She was an outdoor person who enjoyed going out with friends every week.
“We did not know she had taken up pot holing so don’t know how long she had been doing it.”
Mr Goodwill’s wife, Claire Goodwill, who first alerted police to the incident when her husband failed to return home, said that he loved the outdoors and founded a climbing club in St Helens.
In her statement, she said: “Stuart caved every week for several years.
“He would never go caving if it was unsafe. He would tell me what cave he was planning to go to and who he was with.
“He would ring me when he went into the cave and say how long he would be in there for, and when he came out of the cave.”
Mr Gallivan said that the pair were both wearing harnesses and had the necessary equipment for caving.
But he warned that lessons should be learned from the tragedy.
He said that cavers should research what the weather conditions have been in the area prior to their trip, as well as on the day, and that anyone thinking of going caving should inform someone of their plans.
Mr Goodwill lived in Darlington, Co Durham, and worked for civil engineering firm JN Bentley; Ms Fletcher was from Keighley, West Yorkshire and was employed by an associate company, Mott MacDonald Bentley.