An inside look at Chattanooga-Hamilton County Rescue Service’s Cave/Cliff Unit
Anybody want to be a hero?
If so, Brad Tipton would love to meet you. Tipton is captain of the Cliff/Cave Unit of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Rescue Service (CHCRS), which he describes as the best qualified and most talented rescue team in North America, one called in whenever somebody’s in trouble and nobody knows how to get them out.
“Rescue’s always been the unit that does the stuff that nobody else does,” he said.
This includes, but is not limited to, rescuing people trapped underwater, lying broken at the bottom of cliffs, buried alive or stranded in flooded caves. There has been at least one instance of raising from the dead.
Seriously, Tipton cannot talk about his team without using the word “miracle.”
Now Tipton’s in the market for new heroes, and he goes from civic group to outdoor club presenting CHCRS’s history of derring-do and making his pitch. “We’re always actively recruiting, always looking for strong young folks, but we’ll even take the strong old folks,” he said.
If you’re thinking of signing up, bear in mind that the pay sucks: $0. And working conditions? If Tipton says “miracle” a lot, he gets equal mileage out of “misery” and “suffer.”
Still, the fact remains there’s a certain cachet to this hero biz. Why else would television keep staging reenactments of the rescue team’s more spectacular successes?
Here’s a quote combining the two elements, where blood, sweat and tears meet glory in one sentence: “It was a very life-changing moment when you realized that someone you fully expected to not survive did, and it was because of the efforts of all these people who just showed up unpaid to freeze and suffer.”
That’s Tipton describing the first really sensational rescue he participated in after joining CHCRS as a 19-year-old seeking adventure, that of a construction worker buried alive in December 1998. “Initially, we thought we were going out there to dig up a dead guy,” said Tipton.
Darby Patrick, 26, had been laying sewer pipe on Highway 58 when the trench collapsed, burying him beneath what newspapers reported as five, six, and 15 feet of dirt, respectively. (Tipton, who was there, pegged it at 20.) However many feet, it was enough to crush Patrick’s internal organs and bones, necessitating multiple later surgeries, including the amputation of one leg.
But it didn’t quite kill him, because he was able to breathe through a sewer pipe. “By sticking his head in that pipe, he saved his own life,” said Tipton.
Firefighters tried to dig Patrick out but had to stop when their efforts led to another, deeper cave-in. “So they called us,” he said.
Enter Chattanooga-Hamilton County Rescue. Slowly, methodically, the rescuers excavated first Patrick’s head, then, inch by inch, the rest of him, meanwhile treating his wounds, shock and hypothermia in situ, finally airlifting him to Erlanger at 5 a.m. The whole operation took over 15 hours in single-digit temperatures.
“It was a miserable, miserable long night,” said Tipton. “But to see a guy you expected to pull out as a corpse come out alive was absolutely incredible.” Hooked, Tipton stayed on to become captain of the team in 2011.
Somewhere along the line he also became the unofficial CHCRS historian, compiling decades’ worth of records into a concise presentation which he shares here with The Pulse.
The Chattanooga Hamilton County Rescue Service was originally formed as a volunteer “Life-Saving Squad” sponsored by the American Red Cross in 1937, when, as Tipton noted: “You didn’t have ambulance services, you didn’t have fire services, you didn’t have basic rescue services, water rescue services, none of those things.”
So there was a gap and the volunteers— “Basically, it was a group of guys who went out and got medically trained to respond to accidents and medical calls in the backs of their own vehicles”—leapt eagerly in to fill it, providing not only rudimentary ambulance service but river rescue and supplemental firefighting as needed. Back then, much of Chattanooga was still wooden buildings from the 19th century and fires would consume entire blocks.
In fact, the guys found way too many hero opportunities to suit their sponsor. “The American Red Cross got a little concerned about their liability, and at some point during the 1950s, they dropped us,” said Tipton.
The rescuers heroed along for a few years unsponsored, but then came the Cold War and with it a federal government anxious to protect its citizens from the new and terrible threat of nuclear attack. In 1959, the ex-Red Cross squad became the Civil Defense Rescue Service.
With homeowners digging bomb shelters in their backyards and kids learning to “duck and cover” at school, those were anxious years for America—but golden ones for the rescuers. Thanks to Civil Defense funding, they finally had vehicles and gear they didn’t have to buy with their own money. Yes, they spent time preparing their patch of America for World War II, among other duties designating area caves as bomb shelters and stocking them with goodies for the Holocaust. “You can see all the fallout supplies in Sequoyah still, to this day,” said Tipton, referring to Sequoyah Cave in Valley Head, Ala.
But they also expanded rescue operations dramatically. “From ’59 all the way up into the ‘90s, Chattanooga-Hamilton County Rescue was the primary source of emergency vehicle operations, dive team operations, marine rescue and underwater rescue,” said Tipton. The Civil Defense Administration even bestowed upon the squad the first Hurst hydraulic extrication tools—the “Jaws of Life” —in Tennessee, making it possibly the most advanced car wreck rescue unit in the state.
Civil Defense wound down eventually and CHCRS became an independent nonprofit in 1965, funded entirely by the citizens of Hamilton County. “As the fire departments and the ambulance services and all of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County emergency services became better funded, we became less of a primary response unit and more of a support-service-type unit,” said Tipton. Still, whenever something big arose, an ice storm or a multi-car pileup, CHCRS has been all over it.
The Chattanooga area is cave country and CHCRS had always performed cave rescues as needed, its first stab an unsuccessful 1947 multi-day search for teenagers presumed lost in Nickajack Cave, who were later found alive and well in New York.
But CHCRS’s Cave/Cliff Unit wasn’t christened until the 1960s, just in time to respond to what Tipton calls “one of the most significant cave rescues in history,” the Howard’s Waterfall Cave Disaster in 1966.
Gas from a filling station had leaked into the cave in Trenton, Ga., and was ignited by open-flame carbide lamps used by Boy Scouts exploring it, causing an explosion fierce enough to burn their clothes off. The Scouts were trapped but they survived; their guide and two other adults who plunged into the poison air of the cave to rescue them did not. “The guys never took into consideration the possibility that they could be overcome by CO2 and die,” said Tipton.
It was a bitter lesson, and not the last. In a rescue at Megawell Cave, says Tipton, not only did rope anchors fail, endangering rescuers rappelling to the scene, but smoke from a fire built by rescuers outside the cave was sucked into it, almost smothering those inside. The takeaway? “You have to control your scene,” said Tipton. “We learned hard lessons in the early days that we applied to later rescues, and we became a better team because of it.”
They became not just a better team but one with a reputation. When a caver broke her leg miles into Lechuguilla Cave in Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico, they were called in to help with the four-day ordeal of hauling her out. “It was the longest, deepest, and most remote cave rescue in United States history,” said Tipton.
In Alabama, they floated a 240-pound injured man through 20-inch cave passageways, some of which they had just blasted into existence, giving him a straw to breathe through because at times most of him was underwater.
And in Tennessee, they pulled off what became known as the “Nickajack Miracle,” convincing TVA to lower Nickajack Lake enough that they could locate and rescue a stranded diver long given up for dead in Nickajack Cave.
They got good at miracles. Once when a rescued dog arrived at the top of a pit dead, throttled by the rope they’d pulled him up with, they squeezed out a happy ending after all with CPR and what Tipton dubbed “mouth-to-snout resuscitation.”
Tipton credits much of the team’s success to its remarkable medical contingent, which includes volunteer trauma nurses, paramedics, EMTS – and preeminent wilderness medicine expert, Dr. David Wharton.
And he chalks some of it up to iconic past leaders Buddy Lane and Dennis Curry, who helped make the team what it is today.
But mostly, he says, it’s a matter of pure, rugged volunteerism. “That’s our group in a nutshell: They’ll do anything you ask them to do,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how miserable it is. When you call on them, they show up.”
Tipton worries that this spirit, the volunteerism and the outdoorsiness—he didn’t use the word “heroism” —is dying out.
Anybody out there like to prove him wrong?
Prospective heroes—or for that matter, donors—are invited to visit the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Rescue Service website, chcrs.org.