This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of the International Edition of Reader’s Digest.
The crevice is little more than a crack in the rough terrain, barely 50 centimetres wide. Curious, Seth Rowe stands at its edge, poised to go in. It is just before noon on June 20, 2015. The sun peeks out but it is still chilly in the Nottawasaga Bluffs, a rugged area in a snow belt about 140 kilometres northeast of Toronto, Canada.
Seth knows the temperature inside the crevice will hover around minus two degrees Celsius. But he loves the challenge of exploring caves and crevices and he figures that his jeans, T-shirt and the sturdy jacket he carries should be protection enough. I won’t be in long, he thinks.
At heart Seth, now 31, a plumber and pipefitter, is still a daredevil kid—an avid hiker and hunter, charming and sometimes irresponsible. He knows that after a night of partying with his buddies, he should be at home. But his wife, Jamie, also understands that he has to get away every once in a while. It is as much a part of him as his love for her and their two children.
“You’re a bad boy,” Jamie, 25, always says. “It’s part of why I love you.” Then again, he thinks, maybe this time I went too far. In his mind, he replays a conversation—okay, a fight—they had barely an hour earlier. “Where are you?” Jamie had asked on her cell phone, her tone clipped and angry.
“In the forest,” he said.
“Come home now! Remember we’re all going to a movie later—and I need some help around here,” she replied, a pointed reference to Joella, four, and 15-month-old Wyatt.
“OK, I’ll be home in an hour.” he replied. He thinks: But not while you’re mad at me.
Now, bracing his arms on the edge of the crevice to control his descent, he breathes in deeply and exhales to relax his muscles and make his 183-centimetre-tall, 70-kilogram body as small as possible—a trick he learned in his early 20s caving around here. Down, down he goes, between the ice-covered walls while his feet, in sturdy hiking shoes, cast about for purchase.
It does not matter that he has neither a rope nor survival kit for he has done this countless times before, in and out with nary a problem. Coming to a stop on a ledge, he opens his cell phone and uses it to illuminate his surroundings. The crevice walls come into glittering focus and his breath hovers in front of him. The smell is a mix of mould and earth, damp, heavy and dark.
After a few minutes Seth realizes if he goes any further, he won’t be able to climb out. He steps onto a rock ready to hoist himself up and out of the crevice. OK. One, two… Oh God! The rock gives way and Seth slides into the black void, through that tiny opening, like a finger donning a too-small ring.
There is no time to cry out.
There would be no one to hear him if he did.
Once he comes to a stop, Seth takes a few minutes to catch his breath. The sheer force of the fall has left him wedged like a cork in a bottle, with the tip of his nose squashed against one jagged wall and his back flush and raw against the one behind him.
He has no idea where he is. How long did I slide for? It felt like forever. It wasn’t a straight drop, either, for he knows crevices follow the whim of nature and erosion.
Stay calm, he tells himself.
He looks up and sees a crack of light about 20 metres above him. Phone for help, he thinks. But when he reaches for his cell phone he realizes, with a chill, that there would be no service that far underground. He tries to move upwards but the crevice holds him fast: a prison—maybe even a tomb.
Stop thinking like that! He tells himself sharply. One hour passes, then maybe two or three, but in the dark Seth loses track of time. He wonders what everyone at home is doing. Every once in a while, he calls out: “Help! Is anyone there?”
There is no answer.
Jamie will find me. She’ll find the truck and bring a rope. It becomes his mantra. Even though he parked his truck in an unploughed field about half a kilometre beyond where he usually leaves it, he has to believe his wife will find it.
He notices his hands and feet are numb from the damp and the fact that he has not moved for hours. He wishes he could put on the jacket he was carrying but there isn’t room. His knees are killing him.
So might the crevice.
That is when he begins to pray out loud.
“Dear God, I got myself in here, I know,” he said. “But could You help me out? Tomorrow is Father’s Day. I want to spend tomorrow with my family.”
It’s totally dark, and the close space feels as big as a cathedral. Then he hears snuffling and growls from above. What is it? There is a glint from a pair of eyes, golden and feral, staring through the opening: It’s a coyote, and Seth realizes it can smell his blood.
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Frightened, he cries out, “Please, someone, help me!”
Then he hears a voice, or thinks he does: He’s been calling out all day.
But the voice repeats the question: “Where are you?” It is real. Relief floods through his body for he has been found and his icy ordeal will soon be over—or so he thinks.
At 8:05 p.m., Jamie’s cell phone goes off in the movie theatre in Collingwood, 23 kilometres away. She was about to settle into seats with the kids, fuming at her husband’s absence. She had gone to look for him earlier that afternoon but there was no sign of his truck—and he wasn’t answering his phone.
As she listens to the hiker who found him, Jamie begins to run, somehow managing to hold Wyatt close while dragging a protesting Joella behind her.
It is about 45 minutes before Jamie gets to the field because she calls a friend who agrees to meet her and take the kids.
At the clearing where the hiker heard her husband, she kneels by the crevice and calls out: “Seth! I’m here. I love you. We want you to come home.”
Fire Chief Colin Sewell and other members of the nearby Clear-view Fire Department are already on the scene when firefighters from the city of Barrie, a city 59 kilometres to the east, arrive. The team is prepared to rescue a man trapped in a crevice. It happens every year in this area. But Bill Boyes, then Barrie’s deputy fire chief, soon realizes this is going to be more difficult than originally thought. There was no obvious opening to get at Seth, and the team thinks he must have slid at an angle for at least six metres from the entry point and gone down approximately 20 metres. “We’ve got a call in to an off-duty guy on our force who is experienced in crevice-diving,” Boyes continues. “Right now, he’s our best hope.”
By 10 p.m., the site is lit up like an airport landing strip. David Dunt, the rescue expert, arrives. “Let me go down to get an overview,” he says. Thinking he will be in the crevice for 20 minutes or so, Dunt, 178 centimetres tall and 91 kilograms of pure muscle, puts a full-body harness on over his light clothing, claps on a hardhat with a lantern and headset. His colleagues lower him eight metres into the black.
Landing on a narrow shelf, he trains his flashlights downwards. The beams catch a tiny figure about 12 metres below him off at an angle more than 10 metres away. In between is the opening that Seth has been staring at for more than 10 hours, no more than 20 centimetres across, barely enough room for skinny legs to pass through, never mind a full torso.
“Seth?” Dunt calls. “I’m here to get you out.” Unspoken is the thought, Dead or alive. “Have you been into crevices before?”
“Yeah, lots of times,” Seth replies, his voice thick and slow from cold and lack of food.
Although Seth is woefully under-equipped, Dunt is relieved to learn that he understands the principles of caving, such as of muscle relaxation and diaphragm compression, and how to use a seat harness. But Dunt knows he is also probably hypothermic.
“We’re racing against him freezing to death,” he reports urgently into his headset. “We have to get him food—energy—and water. Because we can’t get him out without his help.”
The firefighter stays down, talking with Seth about life, his wife and kids—anything to keep the trapped man awake. At 10:37 p.m., he helps thread a weighted rope more than 12 metres into the dark, which Seth catches and somehow manages to secure. A rudimentary ferrying system ensures that at least Seth has water and energy bars and a thermal blanket.
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Next, firefighters send in a rescue harness, which Dunt talks Seth through putting on. It takes half an hour, with each minute, each second, filled with scrapes, grunts and searing pain.
“I can’t move my legs!” Seth cries.
“Yes, you can, Seth,” Dunt says, his voice steady.
Finally, around 11:15 p.m., after nearly 12 hours in the crevice, Seth is on the move. Firefighters pull him slowly, less than a millimetre at a time, but within minutes the screaming starts. It echoes through the crevice, wordless and panicked.
“Wait, wait, wait,” Dunt yells into the headset. “Drop him back! Talk to me, Seth!” Is his shoulder dislocated? His hip? If it is, we’re finished.
Although the screams stop, Seth, caught up in a haze of pain and fatigue, doesn’t respond. The firefighters start again, reeling him in like a big fish, centimetres forward and then back again. One hour runs into two, then three and four. Finally, Seth is shifted over the six metres so that now he is directly under Dunt and warming up a bit from a heater blasting into the crevice. But he still needs to get through that impossibly small gap. At that point Dunt hears rhythmic knocking, like a woodpecker. He realizes it is his helmet hitting the wall behind him; he can’t stop shivering. I have to get out before I become useless, he thinks. Hauled up, he is wrapped in thermal blankets. Another firefighter goes down to keep Seth talking.
Meanwhile, Boyes meets with Shewell again. It is nearing 3:30 a.m. They need more expertise. Shewell calls the Ontario Provincial Emergency Operations Centre, which dispatches the Toronto Fire Services to the scene. At 5:30 a.m., firefighters from the city arrive. Dunt is happy to see his old friend Chris Rowland among them. A stocky rescue specialist with a loud, commanding voice, Rowland soon takes charge.
“Quiet!” he yells as he kneels at the edge of the crevice. By now, there are about 50 firefighters and paramedics on the site. Seth has been in the crevice for 17 ½ hours.
Rowland outlines a plan: First, Toronto firefighters chip away at the narrow entrance to open the crevice up. Then, three of them in hardhats and protective glasses get into harness and pivot themselves to upside-down positions so they can use electric chisels to further enlarge that tiny gap by about eight centimetres.
“It should be enough for Seth to squeeze through,” Rowland says.
The last-ditch rescue operation begins at 6:14 a.m. For nearly three hours, the chisels whine and echo, punctuated by Seth’s cries as shards of rock fall on his head. The upside-down firefighters take turns coming up for breaks.
As the clock ticks towards 9:30am, the opening is wide enough to use ropes to carefully haul the still harnessed Seth up from the depths. But first Dunt goes back into the crevice to give his lifeline to Seth.
At 9:41 a.m.—nearly 22 hours after Seth went in—he rises slowly out of the ground, dirty, with shredded clothes, a body scraped raw and red and a bleeding gash on his head. It is as if the earth is giving birth to him.
Jamie takes his hand. He wants to tell her something. “I want a Big Mac and fries.”
Laughing out loud, Jamie turns to the paramedics and says, “He’s fine.”
She’s right, too. Miraculously, Seth spends only one night in hospital, where he is treated for hypothermia and abrasions to his chest and back.
At a celebration in Barrie on June 30 – Seth’s birthday – he and his family showed their appreciation of the legion of people who gave his story a happy ending. He spoke of how grateful he was for the chance to be more present as a father and husband. Now he and Jamie go out together as a couple, solid and loving.
“[It] would be absolutely horrendous to every year have Father’s Day be the day your dad didn’t come back,” he said.
To highlight that sentiment, Joella, now five, presented a daisy to Chief Shewell of the Clearview Fire Department.
“Thank you,” she said, “for saving my daddy.”
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