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German spelunker saved after 11 days in ‘most complex and extensive cave rescue operation ever’

June 19, 2014

MUNICH — Johann Westhauser, the spelunker trapped in Germany’s deepest cave after becoming injured by falling rock on June 8, reached the surface Thursday in a rescue effort that relied on help from six countries.

Westhauser, 52, a speleologist from Stuttgart, was hoisted on a stretcher from a depth of almost one kilometer (3,280 feet) in the Riesending cave system near the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden. The task to bring him to safety, which began after he sustained skull and brain injuries in the accident, was completed late this morning, according to a press release from local authorities.

A crew of more than 100 doctors, engineers and emergency personnel collaborated to transport him through the maze that stretches for 19 kilometers inside the Untersberg massif, which straddles the German-Austrian border. Rescue teams from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Croatia and Slovenia negotiated waterfalls, passages as narrow as a human body, and a 180-meter vertical shaft in temperatures close to freezing. Westhauser was part of the group that discovered the underground canyon in 1995.

“This has been the most complex and extensive cave rescue operation ever,” Andreas Baecker, a member of the Bavarian mountain rescue service, said in an earlier telephone interview.

Westhauser, who works at the Institute of Applied Physics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, began exploring the cave after 2002 with a group of explorers from Bad Cannstatt, a district of Stuttgart. He was on an expedition with two others when the accident occurred in the early hours of June 8. One of the companions climbed back to the surface to raise the alarm.

The rescue operation included the installation of a communication system, five camps and more than four kilometers of rope as well as special safety installations such as iron rungs and pegs drilled into the rockface.

Westhauser was carried by teams, who replaced each other at intervals because of the physical exertion of the task. The entrance to the cave is at a height of about 1,800 meters (5,905 feet) in the Bavarian Alps.

Fahmy reported from Berlin.

© 2014, Bloomberg News

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