Editor's note: On July 23, 1993, a flash flood roared through Cliff Cave, drowning six people. This was the first Post-Dispatch story published on July 24 when only four were confirmed drowned.
A caving expedition for 16 children from a St. Louis boys' home ended disastrously Friday when a flash flood swept through a cave in south St. Louis County, killing three children and a male counselor.
Gary Mahr, 13, was the lone survivor of the five boys and two counselors from St. Joseph's Home for Boys who were trapped in 1993 after Cliff Cave flooded.
Two other boys and a 21-year-old female counselor still were missing at 10 p.m. Friday, when the search was called off for the night. It was set to resume at 9 a.m. today.
The children were from St. Joseph's Home for Boys, at 4753 South Grand Boulevard, a residential treatment center for abused or troubled youths.
Police withheld the names of the victims pending notification of relatives. Two of the dead boys were 10 and 12; the missing boys are 9 and 10.
The boys were exploring Cliff Cave, the centerpiece attraction in Cliff Cave Park, a county facility that has been closed for at least two weeks because of flooding from the nearby Mississippi River.
Twenty-five acres of the 221-acre park are under water because of flooding from the Mississippi River, which is adjacent to the park. But the water that killed the cavers came from within the cave. The cave has a small, spring-fed stream within it that normally poses no peril to explorers.
But it swelled to river size after a torrential afternoon rain sent water cascading into the cave through numerous sinkholes.
The four cavers who died had split off from the rest of the St. Joseph's group to explore a narrow tunnel.
"One group wanted to go farther," said St. Louis County Police Chief Ron Battelle. "The other didn't."
One of the children who survived said, "We were in the cave, walking around, playing. Suddenly the water started to come in. I didn't like the way it looked, so I got out."
Cliff Cave is a popular park for residents of South County, but it has been closed because both its picnic area and low-lying areas near the river are under water. The St. Joseph group had to drive around barricades saying "road closed" to get to the mouth of the cave. Battelle said his department would investigate whether someone should be held criminally responsible for the deaths, because the park was marked "closed."
"It's unfortunate they chose to disregard disregard the warning," Battelle said. "It's a tragedy."
He said the message from the deaths was: "Read the signs and obey them. It's a treacherous time."
Karen Wallensak, a spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, which supports supports the home financially, said, "I cannot personally believe that the trained professional staff that we have would have led them past those signs into a dangerous situation."
She said the counselors accompanying the boys were told before they left the home that if there was "any water, even around the cave, they were supposed to stay out."
"All week long, boys had been going spelunking and hiking at the cave," with no problems, Wallensak said. "Every recreational activity is well-planned," she added. "Safety is the No. 1 concern."
Wallensak said that four adults had accompanied the 16 boys, aged from 7 to 14. One of the staff members was an experienced spelunker, Wallensak said.
Wallensak said Friday night that the home's staff would be questioned. "We want to find out what happened and then take appropriate measures," she said. "I can't say what that is at this point."
Gary Stangler, director of the Missouri Department of Social Services, ordered an immediate investigation into the deaths by child abuse investigators. All five of the children who are missing or dead were in the custody of the Missouri Division of Family Services or the St. Louis Juvenile Juvenile Court because of abuse or neglect.
"My first thought was, 'My God, what were they doing in a cave along the Mississippi River?'" Stangler said. "We will look into the appropriateness of the outing, given the weather."
According to police and fire officials, the St. Joseph's group arrived at Cliff Cave Park around noon Friday. Skies were sunny, but weather forecasters were predicting rain later in the day and were warning of the possibility of flash floods.
A flash flood swept through the cave sometime after 2 p.m., just after rain had pounded the area. Water was still rushing out of the cave and across Cliff Cave Road when rescuers arrived around 2:30 p.m.
Rain and runoff enters the cave through numerous sinkholes in the cave's roof, and it created a raging river that apparently knocked the victims down. The bodies that were recovered were tangled in debris; one was wrapped around a log, said Mehlville's assistant fire chief, Bob Palmer.
Throughout Friday afternoon and evening, rescue crews moved deeper and deeper into the cave, trying to find the missing three explorers. Three bodies were found early on; the fourth was found at 6:10 p.m., 1,000 feet into the cave.
Matt Marciano, a spelunker who helped with the rescue efforts, said he had to wade through waist-high water and past numerous waterfalls to reach the fourth victim.
"Nobody should ever attempt to go into a cave that has water coming out of it on a day where it looks like it's going to rain," he said.
Five other expert spelunkers also helped in the efforts. Palmer, of the Mehlville Fire Department, said the search was tricky because the cave still contained water. He described the cave as a maze of tunnels branching off into ever smaller tunnels, some of which stretch the length of a football field.
"We'll have to search every one of these branches," Palmer said.
By evening, the survivors of the outing still were at the scene. For the most part, they sat quietly in the two Variety Club "Sunshine Coaches" that had brought them to the park.
Ben Knox, associate administrator of the county parks department, said that Cliff Cave was a favorite haunt of casual spelunkers. The county imposes no special requirements on those who want to enter it. Park rangers and police check closed parks periodically, he said.
Knox said he didn't know how often or whether Cliff Cave had been checked on Friday. Rangers had to monitor several other closed parks this week, he said, and some were assigned to help police with security in the Lemay area, where several dozen homes were evacuated two weeks ago.
"The thing that's got us sick is we weren't there patrolling as much as normal because we were at Lemay," Knox said.
Phyllis Brasch Librach, Mark Schlinkmann and Kevin Manning, all of the Post-Dispatch Post-Dispatch Post-Dispatch staff, contributed information for this story.
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