Two Mesa men squirmed into the tiny opening of Redman Cave north of Young Saturday morning to explore the murky underwater caverns inside. Only one of the men returned to the surface alive.
The other man, 25-year-old Aaron Standage, apparently drowned in an underwater passageway as he was trying to swim out of a flooded tunnel.
According to Sgt. Terry Hudgens of the Gila County Sheriff's Department, Standage and his friend, William Ferrin, had explored Redman Cave 20 miles north of Young once before and returned Saturday for a second spelunking adventure.
"They had gone into the cave about 250 feet from the entrance, and then down about 30 feet to the water," Hudgens said. "Ferrin went in first, through a small hole about three feet across, then swam about 10 feet underwater to come up in the next cavern."
In that next cavern, Ferrin found less airspace than he anticipated.
"There was only about six inches of airspace, and he was about to go back when Standage popped up next to him," Hudgens said. "They had some discussion about which way to go from there. Ferrin went back the way they came; Standage went a different way."
Ferrin returned to the original cavern, and when Standage failed to return, he went for help.
Within an hour, sheriff's deputies and search and rescue crews had reached the cave and were preparing for a rope rescue.
Adam Shepherd, a diver with the sheriff's department, made his way into the water tethered to a guideline to search for Standage.
"The hole was so small that he had to go in feet first, and had to pull his air tank behind him," Hudgens said. "About 12 feet down this one passage way, Adam found the victim with his feet. He tried to get the victim's attention, but there was no response."
The rocky crevice was so small, Hudgens said, that Shepherd had to use his legs to grab Standage, who had become partially wedged in a crevice. Shepherd slowly inched the victim out of the crevice and back to the water's surface. Even after crews retrieved the victim from the murky water, it took rope teams another three and a half hours to carry him out of the cave.
"In all, it was about a 10-hour ordeal, from the time we got the call to the time we were able to get back to Payson," Hudgens said.
Even though Ferrin was a certified diver, neither man had taken any safety precautions on this trip, the sergeant said.
"They were strictly diving in, holding their breath, swimming under water and hoping that they had air in the next cavern," he said.
Assisting the sheriff's department in the recovery operation were members of the Tonto Rim Search and Rescue Squad, Payson and Pine-Strawberry fire departments, U.S. Forest Service crews and visiting members of the White River Apache Rangers.