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THE SAGA OF FLOYD COLLINS THE PLIGHT OF A SPELUNKER TRAPPED UNDERGROUND IN 1925 RIVETED A NATION'S ATTENTION. YOU COULD SAY IT WAS OUR FIRST MEDIA EVENT.

A march of newspaper stories between Feb. 2 and Feb. 17, 1925 tells the most compelling drama of that era: the heartbreaking failure to free Floyd Collins, 37, from Sand Cave, Ky.

Out of that frightful saga, Collins became a folk legend celebrated in books, verse, a movie and hillbilly songs including "The Death of Floyd Collins."

A slightly built young man, William Burke Miller, a 21-year-old reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, courageous enough to crawl down into the fissure and talk with Collins, won journalism's esteemed Pulitzer Prize for his work.

Collins' imprisonment was unforgetable.

An uneducated cave hunter was held fast by his own discovery in the Mammoth Cave area between Nashville and Louisville, Ky. During those two weeks, a circus atmosphere prevailed. Before death overtook the explorer, 10,000 to 15,000 curiosity-driven people milled around that rural hill country.

They got there by train, buggy, mule, taxi cabs and cars. At one time 4,500 cars had been in and out of the area of the drama. The governor called out the National Guard to keep order. There even was a time when the scenario was dubbed a hoax -- that Collins actually wasn't there.

The scene at Sand Cave -- the dateline of thousands of news stories generated there -- was the country's first "media event" as radio, an electrifying newcomer in the mid-20s, covered the day-to-day excitement with rapid "bulletins."

Many newspapers, of course, printed "extras" as every development added to the days of unbearable strain. (Those who watched on television the rescue three years ago of 18-month-old Jessica McClure after 2 1/2 days trapped in a Texas well have an idea of the tension.)

Collins, full of heart and courage when first reached, was trapped in a 10-foot-long channel barely wider than his body. He was locked in 55 feet down and about 115 feet from the cave entrance located under a rock ledge. His arms were pinned to his side and his legs were immobilized. The underground temperature stayed about 54 degrees, and water from an overhead limestone formation dripped on his gaunt face.

The flawed exploration started Friday, Jan. 30, as he was trying to squirm back to the surface, pushing himself upward when rocks and debris began tumbling on him.

He was, in effect, a victim of the bitter cave wars which caught up the area -- Diamond Cave, Great Crystal Cave, Great Onyx Cave, Colossal Cave and others -- in the '20s. Hustlers were perpetually shunting tourists to their own caverns. It was a tough rural sideshow, producing more and quicker money than farming in that rocky Flint Ridge section.

Several years earlier, Collins had discovered what he called Great Crystal Cave but it failed as an attraction chiefly because it did not connect with Mammoth Cave.

Collins, who began spelunking when he was a boy, went underground every chance he had, looking for the magical cave. He was a loner at this perilous business, but sometimes he was joined by his brothers Marshall, 28, and Homer, 22.

Neighbors and Collins' brothers hurried to the cave entrance Saturday morning after he failed to show up among friends Friday night. A 17-year-old boy was slender enough to crawl into the cold, black chute. He called out and heard Collins shout, "Come to me, I'm hung up," but the boy was too frightened to continue.

Marshall Collins couldn't make it through the constriction, but Homer, down to his underwear, managed to reach his brother. He saw the terrible predicament by lantern light and began workingfrantically -- scooping dirt in a dented can and passing it up to helpers.

Physically and emotionally fatigued, the youngest Collins returned to the surface Sunday morning.

Louisville newspapers began running stories that day and by Monday papers around the country began assigning reporters to the story. By Tuesday, Collins' terrible situation was front-page news throughout the nation.

As the buildup of reporters continued, aviators -- among them a young pilot named Charles Lindbergh -- flew the photographs and special stories from the scene to distant newspapers.
Miller was among the reporters there Monday. He went directly to Homer Collins, who had just emerged from the fissure. When Miller started to ask about the trapped spelunker, Homer Collins pointed to the cave entrance. Go down and talk to him yourself, he snapped at Miller.

Miller put on some coveralls, and although frightened, took a kerosene lantern and clawed his way to Collins. He was aghast when he saw the man's haggard face and hollow-looking eyes. He began talking to Collins. He tried to remove dirt around the trapped man.

Although he entered the cave several times and worked hard, Miller was a realist: "As I saw it, nothing would accomplish his release. Reaching him with food only would prolong his agony. Each hour he remained made him less able to help himself. His position was such that those who could get to him only filled the passage above him and could not do much toward rescuing him."

Miller mentioned that on a couple of his trips to Collins he saw food and drink abandoned along the journey by volunteers who became too frightened to proceed.

Back-breaking work also was done by Johnnie Gerald, who helped remove clutter around Collins' weakening body, comfort him and feed him. It was Gerald who made the frustrating discovery that a small cave-in had sealed Collins from any help. When, on one trip, he called out to Collins he heard the delirious reply: "I've gone home to bed, and I'm going to sleep."

Trying to do anything then was impossible.

Many crude attempts, however, were tried. A harness placed around Collins' chest only caused him excruciating pain. A physician was asked if he could free Collins by amputating his legs. He could not get into a position to do it. Miller and Robert Burdon, a Louisville Fire Department lieutenant, made the last desperate try -- to pry up a boulder with a car jack and crowbar. It did not work because the jack kept slipping.

Amid these frustrations the state stepped into the picture on Thursday. Lt. Gov. Henry H. Denhardt ordered a 5-foot vertical shaft dug close to Collins' position.

It was a pick-and-shovel assault through dirt and limestone. Explosives would be too dangerous. Rain and snow flurries dogged the hardy volunteers for two days. By the following Saturday the shaft was dug 55 feet down, and the workers began a lateral passage toward the niche containing Collins.

At 1:30 p.m. Monday a shout reached the surface: "We're there!"

One of the workers with a flashlight broke through a dirt opening and saw a man's head below him. Minutes later he said: "Dead."
A coroner's jury later went down the shaft, and a doctor said Collins had been dead at least two days -- done in by starvation and exposure.

Newspaper editorials talked about the death.

The Buffalo Evening News stated: "The heroic drama of Sand Cave, which held the rapt attention of the nation for 17 days, was a pitfall tragedy. Floyd Collins, inconspicuous even in the remote Kentucky community where he made his home, stirred an entire people by his imprisonment. The epic tale of Sand Cave in its display of fine qualities proves that there still is something of the divine spark in man.

"The crest and crowning of all good, life's final star, is brotherhood."

The Louisville Times remarked: "Could national will to assist have been directed into a constructive plan, Collins would have been freed by a force sufficient to have moved a mountain."

Miners hired by Homer Collins went down in April and removed his brother's body. In doing that, they found the odd-shaped boulder which had pinned him. It weighed 27 pounds.

Burial was in a plot on the family farm. Later the land was sold to a dentist. The perpetual cave fever of the locality touched him. He removed Collins' body, placed it in a large glass-topped casket, identified it and kept it in the main chamber of Crystal Cave -- a money-making tourist gimmick.

Resentment by cavers may have had something to do with the fact the body was stolen in 1929 and later found -- with a leg missing -- on the bank of nearby Green River. It was returned to Crystal Cave and lay there in a casket until 1961 when the National Park Service bought the cave and closed it to tourists.

The family sued the federal government to release the body.

The whole sorrowful episode was remembered again last March when the remains of the cave explorer were reburied by members of the Collins family at Mammoth Cave Baptist Church cemetery in Flint Ridge -- within Mammoth Cave National Park. Also in the cemetery are the graves of Collins' mother and several siblings.

The Rev. Gary Talley told 40 members of the family that Collins, early in life, became known as the region's preeminent cave explorer "often without benefit of company and with nothing more than a rope and lantern."

The minister continued: "Perhaps it was his courage and struggle to live that gripped the hearts of men and moved them to risk their own lives to free Collins from his underground tomb."

A family member at the cemetery, Mary Lou Carney of Chesterton, Ind., said: "There is a real sense of relief now. It's been a nightmare for three generations the way he has been treated."

DICK BURKE, a retired News reporter, lives in Williamsville.

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