Thursday, May 07, 2009

Crisis at the Caverns

by Bob Hoff

What you and your park people accomplished in that time of crisis and danger is in keeping with the highest standards and precepts of the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the entire Federal Service. I want you all to know that you deserve the highest respect and praise of our citizenry.
Quote from Secretary of Interior Cecil Andrus to Park
Superintendent Donald Dayton

Superintendent’s Monthly Log, July 1979

So wrote Secretary of Interior Cecil Andrus to Carlsbad Caverns National Park Superintendent Donald Dayton about Dayton’s park staff in August 1979. What crisis and danger had confronted that park staff less than a month earlier?

The crisis began on Tuesday, July 10, 1979, at 3:20 p.m. when four Odessa, Texas men, two of them hiding firearms, took the elevator down to the underground lunchroom, intent on seizing hostages and making terrorist demands. Elevator operator Celia Valdez and passenger Park Technician Linda Phillips were taken hostage on the elevator ride down, and forced out of the elevator at gunpoint. Valdez escaped at her first opportunity by running into a crowd; for Phillips, being a hostage lasted nearly four hours.

The four terrorists, two Native Americans—Eugene Meroney (31) and William Lovejoy (28), and two Caucasians—Dennis Mark (39) and David Kuczynski (28), cleared the underground lunchroom, demanding that park employees help get the visitors out. During the evacuation of about 200 visitors from, the underground lunchroom, several gunshots rang out. Meroney ordered one of the park employees, Park Technician Jesus Fierro, to help get visitors out of the lunchroom; Meroney left Fierro, but quickly returned, pointed his rifle at Fierro!s feet, cocked the weapon, and pulled the trigger. The rifle failed to fire (“Operator Heard Episode Start,” El Paso Times, July 12 1979).

Holed up in the underground lunchroom, with hostage Park Technician Linda Phillips, their weapons, and a bottle of whiskey, the terrorists made known their demands: to talk to a reporter, to receive a million dollars, and to be flown to Brazil. Whether or not the four terrorists knew about the 100 or so visitors hiding at the Top of the Cross area is unclear, but what is clear is that they allowed some visitors to return to the surface in the elevators. Other visitors and employees walked out through the Natural Entrance.

During the shooting spree by the terrorists, a wooden bench, a wooden door, a wooden handrail, some audiovisual equipment, and a dress jacket were damaged by gunshot pellets. At 4:40 p.m. Carlsbad Current Argus publisher Ned Cantwell arrived and attempted to call the terrorists by telephone; they insisted that he come into the cave and talk to them in person. He went down to the terrorist-controlled underground lunchroom at 5:40 p.m

At 5:25 p.m. FBI Agent Jim Gallagher arrived at park and at 6:35 p.m. El Paso Special Agent Wallace Crossman, specially trained in hostage negotiations, arrived. Crossman assisted Area Manager Jack Linahan and Agent Gallagher in evaluating the gunmen’s demands.6 Crossman ordered an FBI Special Weapons Attack Team, which arrived 8:00 p.m. and put on stand-by.

Negotiations continued between Area Manager Jack Linahan and the hostage-takers via phone. At one point the gunmen offered to release the hostages in return for a bottle of whiskey, but Linahan refused. Linahan did indicate, however, that the US Attorney might be receptive to negotiating their demands.

Eventually, the abductors agreed to release Park Technician Phillips and newspaper publisher Cantwell, if the charges against the four Odessa, Texans would be reduced to misdemeanors. The FBI agreed and Phillips and Cantwell were released at 7:07 p.m.

Having traded their demands for a million dollars and a plane ride to Brazil for reduced criminal charges against them, the four gunmen surrendered at 8:47 p.m. Once arrested, the four terrorists faced bail of $250,000 per terrorist.

Setting the bail was easy compared to what followed. In the days that followed, legal authorities argued two major points:
(1) Who rightfully had legal jurisdiction in this bizarre case—New Mexico or the Federal government?

(2) Was the guaranteeing of a reduced misdemeanor charge inappropriate for an armed terrorist situation involving so many people When the legal arguments were resolved, the four Texans found themselves in Albuquerque rather than Brazil:

The four gunmen who took over the Cavern on July 10 pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges before U.S. Magistrate Robert McCoy in Albuquerque on August 2 ("1979" added by BH) and were sentenced to one year in prison. According to information received, they will have to serve the full sentence and will not be eligible for paroles.
(Superintendent’s Monthly Log, August 1979)

The hostage situation had ended none too soon on July 10, 1979 for maintenance employee Brenda Buris, one of the 100 plus people trapped at the Top of the Cross. Suffering epileptic seizures, Buris, who was without her medication, became unconscious and faced a life-threatening situation. Park Technician Carol Metzger, who managed Buris’ medical emergency and the other visitors during the long hours of the cave-takeover, controlled the situation until help could arrive once the hostages had surrendered.

For Ned Cantwell, his part in resolving the terrorist situation brought him an unexpected admirer. On July 27, 1979, in Washington D.C. at a President Jimmy Carter Conference, Cantwell stood in line to shake hands with the Chief Executive. When Cantwell reached the President, Carter read Cantwell’s name tag, saw that he was from Carlsbad, and asked him “if he had been the one who went into the Caverns and talked to the four gunmen.” Cantwell admitted the distinction and President Carter told the story to the rest of those present, citing Cantwell for “a great act of heroism.(story from Bob Hoff Oral History Interview of Ned Cantwell--May 22. 1997).

Because the park staff responded so well to that time of crisis and danger, they received a Unit Award for Excellence of Service in January 1980. You might recognize the names of some of these people--Harold West, Bobby Crisman, Manny Cortez, Tom “Boomer” Bemis, Peggy Justice, Diane Esquibel, Celia Valdez, Bob Turner, and Amelia Tully.

July 10, 1979, had indeed included a time of crisis and danger at the caverns. Four armed muddled-thinking terrorists had taken over the underground lunchroom in a cave in a major National Park on a summer visitation day. They took hostages and in the process fired an estimated 100-200 round of ammunition in the underground lunchroom. They indirectly kept over a 100 people in the cave against their will for over five hours. Under these trying conditions, the park staff, local and other law enforcement authorities, and a local newspaper publisher provided for the safety and protection of all the visitors and employees.

And in the process, the NPS staff at CAVE helped returned the cave to its’ rightful owners.

Written in December 1992 for Bob Hoff's History Leads and Resources Reprinted in Dale Pate's Canyons and Caves (Issue 34, Fall 2004)


Anonymous said...
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Lutzer said...

My parents, my grandparents and I were among the 100 visitors who waited together at the Top of the Cross. Apart from the one park employee who had a seizure and another person who began having respiratory problems, other issues included staying warm (my grandmother--then in her 70s--had worn a sleeveless top into the Caverns) and trying not to use the single portable toilet that was available. We were all glad to hear the announcement "The rangers are on their way." My grandmother, unfortunately, missed out on her fondest wish to be interviewed on national TV.

Lutzer said...
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Johnny G said...

I was about 12 years old when this happened and I was in the lunchroom with my family when I saw the gunmen exit the elevators with a female hostage. She made an announcement and I'll never forget my terrifying experience as we waited, for what seemed like forever, for the elevators to come down. Now that I read this article, I'm pissed that they got away with misdemeanor charges.