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Friday, July 10, 2009

Thirty years ago--July 10, 1979 -3:10 p.m by Tom B.

Soon to retire after thirty years of employment at Carlsbad Caverns, employee Tom B started his career about the time of the hostage situation. Even without a ranger uniform on that day, he quickly jumped in and did what had to be done. He filled a myriad of roles over the years, including search and rescue, teaching search and rescue and climbing ropes, and cave exploration, and has always been incline to science and adroit in explaining science to others.

In the 23 years that I have known him, I have noticed that he has an obsession with puns, while I just have a healthy interest in them. :O) Bob H.

T. writes...
I was working the underground information desk and had just checked the clock. Big Room sweep would be starting soon. I glanced into the elevator lobby. An elevator had just come down. Maybe the sweep ranger would be on it.

A long black object stuck out of the elevator door. It looked like a gun barrel. No way, I thought. It must be a cane.

Two men got off of the elevator, accompanied by seasonal ranger Linda P. The men were both carrying rifles. I first thought that some sort of law enforcement situation was going on. Then I saw Linda’s face. The look of terror told me what I needed to know.

Linda came directly to the information desk, followed by the men. She picked up the microphone and announced that the cave was being taken over and everyone needed to leave. No one was allowed to exit by elevator. The men racked rounds into their weapons.

Another seasonal ranger (I think it was Kevin C.) had been at the back of the Lunchroom setting up for a slide show. He and I quickly cleared everyone out of the Lunchroom and started them for the Main Corridor. By now, I later learned, a third gunman had joined the other two. As I left the Lunchroom, the feeling I had in my back, knowing that there was most likely a loaded and cocked rifle pointed in my direction, is still unforgettable.

Just outside the Lunchroom, I met ranger Tom M., who asked what was going on. I told him that gunmen had taken over the Lunchroom. He answered with “I was afraid it might be something like that.” That answer surprised me. I thought I was the only one who was constantly running such bizarre scenarios through my head.

At Big Room Junction we also met up with the elevator operator who had brought the gunmen down. She said that the gunmen had taken Linda and her hostage, but that she had managed to slip out in the confusion in the Lunchroom. She was very shaken up and on the verge of being hysterical.

I gathered what people I could who were coming out of the Big Room and Main Corridor and started sending them back up the Main Corridor trail toward the Natural Entrance. I had to explain to them that I was a ranger because I had been working for the park service for less than a month and my uniform had not yet come in. I quickly had some allies with the public who kept saying “listen to him! He’s a ranger!”

Tom M. and I started up the Main Corridor, keeping the people moving, and it quickly became apparent that some of the visitors were not in good physical shape for the 1 1/2 mile long, eighty stories increase in elevation walk.. I sent Tom M. ahead with the majority of the crowd and I stayed behind, shepherding the slow movers.

When we got to the Shortcut Phone (where the King’s Palace tour now comes out) we found out that ranger Carol M. was trapped at the Top of the Cross with about a hundred visitors who could not get out of the Big Room because they would have to walk past the Lunchroom. One of the group was in need of insulin, which she had left in the car.

I continued my slow trek up the Main Corridor. One of the people in my group had emphysema and was having a lot of difficulty. His son was with him and was having as much trouble as his father, but supposedly had no health problems.

When we got to the Iceberg Rock phone, I called the surface and told them that I had given a talk on caving in the Big Room earlier in the day and that all my vertical gear, including a three hundred foot rope, was on Texas Trail and available for a rescue via the Jumping Off Place, if necessary. I also filled them in on the health problems in my group.

Communications via the phones was tricky. All the phones in the cave were connected in a party line. If any phone was picked up, it would ring on the surface and at the Underground Desk. The gunmen were occasionally on the phone and were not yet aware that they had an additional hundred hostages in the Big Room.

We continued the slow climb out of the cave. I looked back and saw a lone figure climbing through the rocks, off-trail. He was wearing something on his hip. My first thought was that it was one of the gunmen, wearing a pistol. I he got closer, I realized it was Harold W., one of our elevator mechanics. The object on his hip was the battery pack for his headlamp. What a relief!

Harold said he had been watching the gunmen from in the rock pile above the Lunchroom. He said they had been doing quite a bit of shooting. At what, he didn’t know. I’m surprised it wasn’t at him. I later found out that they heard noises and thought there were rangers in Left Hand Tunnel and had opened fire. I suspect that they had heard Harold and had misjudged the direction. Either that, or had heard the raccoons that lived in the Lunchroom area at that time. I do know that no trash cans in the Big Room got dumped by raccoons for at least two days after the incident.

We finally got to the Natural Entrance three hours after leaving the Lunchroom. Oxygen was waiting for my party. It turned out that the oxygen was used on the son of the man with emphysema. His father was doing fine.

When I got out of the cave, I called home and told everyone I was ok. Then I went back to the visitor center to see if I could help.

The gunmen had surrendered by now and the FBI was preparing to go in to investigate. They needed a photographer, so I was drafted.

When we entered the Lunchroom, we found an arsenal sitting on the underground info desk. I recall at least two 30-30 rifles and a twelve gauge shotgun, and enough ammunition to supply a small army. There were also whiskey bottles. How they managed to smuggle all that onto the elevator is beyond me. I do know that the rifles were broken down and shoved down their pants legs and the men entered the elevator on crutches, but there was still a lot of stuff to be carried.

The wooden handrail in the food serving line had been heavily peppered with shot (and remained that way for several years after the incident) and the slide projector case and screen in the back of the lunchroom also had quite a few pellet holes in them. I later saw the Left Hand Tunnel gate and saw that it had been heavily riddled with shot.

There are many other stories to tell about this day, especially from the viewpoints of Linda P., who remained a hostage during the entire incident, Carol M., who sat in the Big Room with a hundred stranded visitors, Ron K., who was preparing to lead in S.W.A.T. and rescue teams, the newspaper publisher who entered the cave and interviewed the gunmen, Hal C., who was the sole person waiting in the elevator lobby to greet the gunmen when they surrendered, and the gunmen themselves..

As for me, the day after the incident, I called the uniform supplier and thanked them for taking so long in filling my order. Otherwise I also would have been taken hostage and would have had a very different story to tell.

--Tom B





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