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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

In Market: Caves, journalism and the public: A love story

Trapped in a cave

The original must-see TV

It was a joyful celebration on Thursday, July 5, when the Thai and foreign rescuers of the youth soccer team trapped in a cave for 18 days headed home seemingly little worse for wear.

By Tuesday, July 11, ABC 20/20 had a program on the boys and their rescue, bolstered by video from the watery depths of the five-mile long Tham Luang Nang Non cave. It was must-see TV.

It didn’t take any fancy editing to wring drama from this tale. The 12 Wild Boars players and their coach had entered the cave to go exploring June 23 but monsoon rains filled the tight passageways, blocking their escape. They were found 10 days later, huddled on a small, dry shelf just above the water, and divers and other international rescuers plotted the complex mission to rescue the team before more rain came. The whole world was watching.

While there was plenty to celebrate, the effort wasn’t without some cost. A former Thai navy SEAL volunteering to work on the rescue died on July 7 during a supply mission inside the cave, though what happened hasn’t been fully explained. And, as the ABC episode explained, right after the last group was rescued, some of the pumps keeping the water out began failing, meaning things could have gone decidedly south.

Long before Lassie made it a cheap TV staple, the cave rescue – or lack thereof – has been part of the media landscape. It’s natural drama. This most recent one had some novel angels – the teenage soccer team, the fact that they were lost as the World Cup was underway and the technology that produced the haunting video of the boys lost deep in the cave.

Journalism and caves go back a long way, to when coal mining was more of a way of life than it is now. The most famous case, which continues to resonate today, goes back to 1925 in what is now part of Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

A 37-year-old man, an experienced cave explorer named Floyd Collins, went into part of the cave and became trapped in a narrow shaft, his left leg pinned by a large rock.

Relatives searching for Collins found him trapped in the cave. The ensuing rescue effort turned into a publicity carnival. The new medium in this case was radio and the 18 days of the rescue effort mesmerized the nation. It was one of America’s first live disasters.

Slight-of-build reporter Skeets Miller (reporters had better names then) was sent down to chronicle the drama and, reportedly, supply Collins with food and whiskey. The 21-year-old Miller delivered with some of purplest, juiciest prose this side of Dashiell Hammett. Miller’s original reporting appeared in The Courier Journal of Louisville:

“Floyd Collins is suffering torture almost beyond description… . [He] has been in agony every conscious moment since he was trapped… . Before I could see his face, … I was forced to raise a small piece of oilcloth covering it.

“‘Put it back,’ he said. ‘Put it back – the water!’ … I tried to squirm over Collins’s body to reach the rock, until he begged me to get off. ‘It hurts – hurts awful,’ he said. Collins is lying on his back, resting more on the left side. His two arms are held fast in the crevice beside his body, so that he really is in a natural straightjacket.”

Miller’s cave adventure earned him a Pulitzer Prize. Collins gained fame but lost his life after an area above him collapsed. The nation mourned.

But it didn’t forget. In 1996, a musical, Floyd Collins, opened to solid reviews and has been performed around the world.

The modern media world has continued to cover these stories, not the least of which involved Jessica McClure, an 18-month old girl stuck in a well in Midland in 1987. Her outcome was better than Collins; she was rescued. Her plight was also parodied by The Simpsons in the series’ 13th episode. Guest Sting sings a song, “We’re Sending Our Love Down the Well,” as a fundraiser for Bart, who is allegedly stuck in the well.

For me the best re-imagination of the Collins story is a 1951 Billy Wilder film, Ace in the Hole, sometimes titled The Big Carnival. It’s one of the great journalism films in my book.

In the film, Kirk Douglas plays a far more venal version of Skeets. The recently-fired Douglas attempts to re-enter a mine collapse and manipulates the scene to prolong the trapped man’s agony simply to keep newspapers supplied with his copy and thus revitalize his career. The reports create a sensation and a carnival-like atmosphere ensues. Meanwhile, the reporter has an affair with the trapped man’s wife and schemes with local politicians to keep the mine tragedy going. They’re happy for their small New Mexico town to receive some attention.

Eventually, the trapped man dies and Douglas’ character is made to pay for his crimes, memorably telling a young, innocent reporter to “Tell the truth,” with his last breath.

Yes, we’re all still cave men at heart.

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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