These Two Cave Divers Were Trapped Underwater—with Only Enough Oxygen for One

They were the first ones to see the underwater caves. But when it was time to return to the surface, their escape rope was nowhere to be found.

These Two Cave Divers Were Trapped Underwater—with Only Enough Oxygen for OneMatias Alexandro for Reader's Digest International

Mid-morning on Saturday, April 15, 2017, Xisco Gràcia Lladóun loaded oxygen tanks from his truck near the mouth of Cova de sa Piqueta. Xisco and his longtime friend Guillem Mascaró were planning to spend the day exploring the subaquatic cave system on the island of Majorca, Spain.

Xisco had been cave diving as a hobby for more than 20 years. The stocky 54-year-old divorced father of two loved mapping the island’s many tunnels and chambers and contributing his findings to the growing body of scientific literature on Majorca’s caves.

Guillem, a willowy 54-year-old local, had been ocean diving for decades and had started exploring caves in 2003. He was glad to be diving with Xisco, one of the most experienced cave divers on Majorca.

Xisco unfolded a map and pointed to an area about 900 meters from the cave’s entrance. “There are underwater chambers here,” said Xisco, “and they’ve never been studied.” Xisco was excited at the thought that he would be seeing the rooms for the first time. (These are some of the most beautiful sea caves in the world.)

Damp air greeted the two men as they entered the cave and passed into darkness. Xisco attached four bottles of air to his belt and passed three bottles to Guillem. Satisfied they had the right amount of air—enough to get in, explore, and return, plus an extra hour in case of an emergency—Xisco put his regulator in his mouth and lowered his head underwater. Guillem followed.

The diving partners used a simple, time-honored tool to move through the underwater maze: thin, nylon guidelines flagged with numbered labels. If a tunnel forked, another line extended down the second passage.

The snaking path Xisco and Guillem were to follow split many times, creating a maze of potential wrong turns all but indistinguishable from one another without the lines, markers, and the arrows they placed at each intersection that pointed to the exit. Xisco noticed that the water was clear that morning and the markers were easily visible. The two men moved forward, leaving a cloudy trail of churned-up sediment in their wake.

After an hour of navigating the narrow, twisting tunnels, Xisco swam into an underwater room and began collecting rock samples. Guillem was measuring the shape and diameter of a nearby chamber.

After about an hour, Xisco glanced at his air pressure gauges and saw his tanks were a third empty. We each have enough air for two more hours, he thought, two-and-a-half tops.

Grabbing Guillem by the shoulder, Xisco pointed to his air pressure dials. It was time to get out.

They started back the way they had come, following the guideline through water muddy with sediment they had kicked up on the journey in. At first the passage was wide, but as they progressed the walls closed in until Xisco’s bottles were dragging and catching. The contact kicked up even more sediment, which churned around them like a thick, chocolatey soup.

But the two divers followed the white cord hand over hand until they came to a rock wall, where the line suddenly ended. Xisco felt for the next section of the line—nothing.

He indicated to Guillem that he should go to a cave about 200 meters away, where he knew there was air, and wait for him. He knew the air there wasn’t perfect—it contained some carbon dioxide—but it was the nearest place to wait for him, and saving air in their tanks was important.

Xisco continued looking for the guideline. He waved his hand into the abyss. It appeared that a piece of rock where the guideline had been affixed had broken off. He pulled off his gloves and began feeling for the line in the dark cloud that swirled around him. He swam back and forth, hands touching rock and sediment. The visibility grew worse with every movement.

After a short while, Xisco peered at his regulator and tensed. He hadn’t realized how long he had spent looking for the guideline. We’ve only got an hour of air each and we’re still a kilometer from the exit, he thought. Even if we find the right path, we might run out of air before we reach the surface.

Xisco swam to the cave where Guillem waited for him. When he brought his head out of the water, he saw that he was in a large lake in a cavernous room some 80 meters long and 20 meters wide. Beyond the lake he could see pointed rocks, some reaching high above the water’s surface.

When he took a breath, he realized immediately that the air contained more carbon dioxide than he’d thought. It was high—maybe two to three percent—far more than the 0.03% percent present in regular air. He also knew that such a high concentration of carbon dioxide could have dire consequences: elevated heart rate and rapid breathing, headaches, hallucinations, paralysis, unconsciousness, and death.

Xisco and Guillem climbed out of the water and onto the rocks of the pitch-black room. “There’s another route to the surface, but it’s a bit longer,” said Xisco, pointing out the path on a laminated map. “The guideline should be intact.”

Examining the tanks, Guillem said, “There’s only enough air for one of us to make it to the surface.”

“You’re smaller and quicker; you’ll use less air on the way out,” said Xisco. What’s more, Xisco had spent many days exploring underground chambers with carbon dioxide-saturated air, and knew how to slow his breath to reduce the amount of toxic gases he inhaled.

Guillem suited up with the remaining tanks. Xisco watched as he disappeared beneath the surface of the water.

I hope I see him again, thought Xisco, drawing a shallow breath. He felt his pulse quicken, one of the first signs of carbon dioxide poisoning. And soon.

It was close to 6 p.m. Saturday evening.

LESS THAN an hour later, Guillem burst through the water’s surface, tore his regulator from his mouth, and inhaled the clean Majorcan air. His fingers shook as he dialed up the members of Grup Nord, Majorca’s official caving organization.

Within an hour, several of the island’s top cave divers had assembled in the growing darkness. One of them was Bernat Clamor, who had almost as much diving experience as Xisco.

“There may be a lot of carbon dioxide in that cave,” said Bernat. “We don’t know how long he has.”

The group agreed that two divers familiar with the cave would go in first. Guillem marked Xisco’s location on a laminated map and handed it to the men before watching them head underground.

Two hours later they returned with bad news. In the rush to reach the surface, Guillem had stirred up the water to the point that visibility was almost at zero. It was impossible to read the markers indicating which way to go when a tunnel forked.

“We’re going to have to wait for the water to clear before diving again,” said Bernat. It could take hours or even days for the sediment to settle. Xisco might choke to death breathing carbon dioxide, but Bernat knew that diving in water like chocolate was pointless. He didn’t want to put anyone else at risk. There was nothing to do but wait.

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AS XISCO SAT in the dark cave, minutes felt like hours. He was dizzy, due to the effects of the carbon dioxide in the air. And his diving watch had stopped. He had no idea that he’d been in the cave for only four to five hours.

A creeping dread gripped him. Guillem is dead. No one knows where I am.

Turning on his headlamp, Xisco made his way down to the lake from the ledge he was perched on. Cupping his hands, he brought the clear liquid to his lips. Though much of the water in the cave network was salty, the top layer of this lake was clean and fresh.

Not so the air. Xisco labored as he made his way back to his resting spot—the only flat surface in the cave—and groaned as a sharp pain shot through one temple. The carbon dioxide was taking hold and every extra movement—and breath—meant that he consumed more of it.

Xisco lay down and tried to stay calm. He vowed that he would only move to drink and urinate. He turned out his headlamp to preserve its battery and lay in the cold, humid darkness.

He wondered if his ex-wife had been notified yet. It had only been a year since the split, and the divorce had been devastating for Xisco. Would she tell the kids? Were they worrying about him at that very moment?

His thoughts returned to the divers on the island.

They’ll find me soon, he reasoned. I hope.

These Two Cave Divers Were Trapped Underwater—with Only Enough Oxygen for OneMatias Alexandro for Reader's Digest International

ABOVE GROUND, a team of medics stood by and a psychologist was on hand. Divers and cavers from across the island stood debating the best course of action.

“We’ve made one attempt and no one can get more than 300 meters in,” Bernat explained to two new divers on the scene. “The water is like mud.”

Meanwhile, members of the local and national police were setting up tents and barricades to keep the growing crowd of reporters at bay. The general director of emergencies for the Balearic Islands was on the scene, but the rescue was now directed by a member of the Guardia Civil, the officer in charge of the Special Group of Subaquatics Activities on Majorca. After listening to various divers and law enforcement officers, he made the call.

“We wait until morning before diving again,” he said to a chorus of groans. Everyone knew the great danger Xisco was in; he might be sucking down the last gulp of toxic air his body could handle at that very minute.

It was 9:30 Sunday night and Xisco had been underground for more than 30 hours.

As the group dispersed, one diver mumbled angrily under his breath: “By tomorrow it will be too late.”

A LIGHT FLICKERED over the underground lake.

Xisco sat up. His head swirled at the sudden movement. The batteries in his headlamp had finally died and the darkness felt almost blinding.

What was that gurgling sound? Was someone in here with him? He listened again: Silence.

Xisco lay back down on the wet rocks and took a shallow breath.

I’m hallucinating, he thought. The carbon dioxide has saturated my blood. No one is coming to save me.

His thoughts went to his children, to his mother, to his sister-in-law, who was dying of cancer.

He thought of the pocketknife tucked in his gear bag. If the gas doesn’t kill me, I can always take care of it myself.

“FINALLY,” said Jhon Freddy Fernandez, hurrying to pull on his wet suit. Freddy, a dear friend of Xisco, had been waiting more than 24 hours for his turn to join the search. Now, shortly before noon on Monday, the call came. As he began to swim down the first tunnel, Freddy’s heart lightened. The water was clear. Not crystal clear, but enough to see the markers. He got to work on his task: To cut every guideline except the one leading to Xisco. He moved quickly. After two hours he emerged from the cave beaming.

“I was almost there,” Freddy told the gathered team. “The next diver should be able to reach him.”

Bernat leaped to his feet and grabbed his tanks. Within minutes, he was in the water. With just a single white guideline to follow, he was able to make his way through the underground maze straight toward the chamber where Xisco lay.

I must be so close, thought Bernat after about an hour underwater. The priority right now was to establish whether Xisco was alive and what kind of rescue mission it was going to be.

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THIS WILL BE my tomb, thought Xisco.

Again, he heard the sound of bubbles, like a diver surfacing. Then light began dancing on the roof of the cave.

“Xisco, Xisco!” yelled a familiar voice.

Xisco turned his head and saw his old friend Bernat, dripping wet and striding toward him. The two men embraced.

“Guillem is dead, isn’t he?”

“No, he’s alive and waiting for you at the surface!” said Bernat.

He gave Xisco some glucose gel for energy and the two men talked until Bernat was sure Xisco was in good enough shape to make the return trip.

“I’m going back out to let them know you’re alive. The next divers will bring you air and get you out of here,” explained Bernat. “Can you wait a little longer?”

“Now that I know I’m saved, I could wait another day!” said Xisco.

FOUR HOURS LATER, around 8 p.m. on Monday, Hilari Moreno Moya and Enrique Ballesteros, both friends of Xisco, emerged from the water in the cave, headlamps beaming.

They carried tanks heavy with Nitrox—a gas containing twice the oxygen of regular air. Xisco breathed in the potent mixture and felt his body come back to life. His head began to clear and he was able to take a deep breath for the first time in 58 hours.

Xisco smiled at his two old friends: “I’m ready to go.”

Sixty hours after entering Cova de sa Piqueta, at 11:10 p.m. Monday, Xisco walked unaided from the mouth of the cave. The cheers of an overjoyed crowd greeted him.

Guillem, who was among the waiting throng, broke into a grin when he saw Xisco. He was alive!

It is a tradition with the Grup Nord that the diver who first explores a new cave can name it. Today, the chamber where Xisco and Guillem had sought refuge is known as the Room of the Three Miracles, the name Xisco gave it. The first miracle was that Xisco found a chamber with air. The second, that he survived breathing air with so much carbon dioxide; and the third, that he was able to escape the terrifying ordeal with his life.

Next, find out how to save your own life in 12 scary emergencies.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest International Edition