The Miraculous Rescue of David Gant from Nickajack Cave in Tennessee

The Miraculous Rescue of David Gant from Nickajack Cave in Tennessee
Incident LocationDiver Full Names
USA, Tennessee, Nickajack CaveDavid Gant

On the 15th of August 1992, David Gant’s diving adventure in search of big catfish at Nickajack Cave turned out to be problematic. However, after all the challenges faced by David and the rescue team at the Nickajack Lake site, the situation ended up being a miracle. What really happened? Be sure to subscribe to our channel for more exciting cave-diving stories!

The History of Nickajack Cave and Dam

There once existed a village called Chickamauga Cherokee of the Nickajack people, which was just upstream from the present Nickajack Dam; it was attacked and destroyed in 1794 during the Nickajack expedition. The Nickajack Cave was located between the entrance of this town and the Tennessee River. The Nickajack Cave was named after this village. And the Nickajack Dam was named after the Nickajack Cave. The Nickajack Dam is a hydroelectric dam and is one of the nine dams constructed on the Tennessee River.

It is located in Marion County, in the state of Tennessee, the United States. The dam is owned and managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. It was built in the mid-1960s as a substitute for the obsolete Hales Bar Dam, which is about 6 miles (9.7 km) upstream. Nickajack Lake, which is about 10,370 acres (4,200 ha), is enclosed by the Nickajack Dam.

The dam flows into Guntersville Lake. Nickajack Lake is located above sea level at 633 to 635 ft (193–194 m) and its ceiling is about 632 ft (192 m) high on average.

The Dangers of Cave Diving

Among the essentials of cave diving, there are two basics that you must not trifle with. They are appropriate training and certification coupled with appropriate diving equipment. You don’t dare go on diving adventures without these two. But it was a surprise that a man could go into an underwater cave without any of these. Nickajack Cave has been known for centuries. The cave was a major source of saltpeter that was used in making gunpowder in those days. Mr. Big, a giant stalagmite that is found far within the cave, is said to be the biggest in the world.

When you go about hundreds of feet into the cave, you will discover that the ceiling has descended and wiped out into the Nickajack Lake green waters due to flooding, leaving behind only 15 ft (5 m) of the entrance. Since 1980, Nickajack Cave has been under the management and protection of the Tennessee Valley Authority to protect the endangered Indiana bats that have made the cave their abode. They had several gates to warn intruders to stay clear of the cave.

They had several gates to warn intruders to stay clear of the cave. Despite all this, a man named David Gant and his friend made their way into the Nickajack Cave. They went into the water that is outside the fence, though they were aware of the restriction on the cave. At least they were aware of the above-water restrictions that were made for the sake of the bats.

Underwater Exploration

They decided to go underwater where they wouldn’t be seen and would likely not disturb the bats. They had received training for open-water diving and had been to the cave about three times. The night before the exploration, when David was at this cave site, he sighted a big catfish that caught his attention, but the fish escaped into the darkness.

He promised to make a trip back to the cave to get the big fish. On a Saturday night, August 15th, 1992, David and his friend got to the cave, knowing full well that the visibility of the murky waters in the lake was just within 2 ft (1 meter), but because of the incentive awaiting them in the cave, they went against the odds, thinking the water would be clear inside.

Lost in the Depths

Deep into the lake, they went, only to find out that the beams of their dive lights were fading off into the greenish hollowness. Soon, they began to see the mud and rocks at the base of the cave but didn’t see the fish, not even its movements. David checked his air tank and signaled to his friend that they would need to return to the surface.

Diving through their bubbles, they went upward with the expectation of getting to an air pocket. But to their surprise, it was a solid cave ceiling they saw. They have gone too far into the cave, right into passageways that have been flooded. They signaled back to themselves and dived down again, as they began to go towards a place that they assumed could be the way out.

Then, they dived upward again. They were welcomed for the second time by the ceiling of the cave. Fear began to grip their hearts! They have silted up the murky waters, resulting in poor visibility. At this point, they lost sight of each other. David’s friend had gone fast in one direction and David in another.

Desperate Moments

David’s friend was very lucky; the direction he went led him to an air-filled passageway very close to the entrance. He almost ran out of air in his tank before getting to the entrance. David, on the other hand, has dived deeper into the cave. He found himself in a lonely air pocket. He was totally cut off from the world.

David’s friend didn’t see his friend emerge from the water all night long, and he grew exceedingly worried. It was late. There was nothing that could be done at such an hour. He couldn’t go back into the cave, so he had to wait till the morning light. On Sunday morning, David’s friend reported the case to TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) security and they began a rescue operation.

A Challenging Rescue

Upon hearing of the unfortunate incident, many dive rescue teams came out to assist with the rescue operation. When the situation surrounding the incident was evaluated, they thought that David would have died within the cave. There was a likely possibility of him drowning or being affected by hypoxia asphyxiation in an air pocket in case he had been fortunate enough to enter one.

As a result of this analysis, the Incident Commander of the dive team declared the search operation a recovery operation (search for a body) rather than a rescue operation (search for a living victim). Of all the divers that were present, none of them were trained in cave diving. They were all open-water divers.

They had ten agencies and more than one hundred operators at the site, but none could help. To get trained divers who can enter into the murky waters of Nickajack Cave, they would have to go as far as Atlanta and Huntsville, which would take about three to four hours to get them ready for the rescue operation.

After about Four hours of endless waiting, the report of the incident got to Buddy Lane, Captain of the Hamilton County Cave/Cliff Rescue Team. He and his team are one of the most experienced cave rescue teams in the U.S. On several occasions, Buddy Lane pleaded with the Incident Commander that he and other cave divers should come for the rescue, but he was denied the requests.

The Incident Commander in charge of the dive team was conscious of not endangering the lives of other divers in the underwater cave in search of one man, so he took caution. He complained to Lane that the case was an underwater cave rescue and not just a cave rescue. By the dawn of Sunday morning, those who were at the main entrance of the cave had gone to about 200 ft (61 m) within the cave three times.

They couldn’t find David, not even hearing his voice after calling out several times within the cave. When they got exhausted, they agreed that cave divers should come from Huntsville, which is 100 miles (161 km) away from the cave site. David’s family had been informed about the incident. They came to the scene and were gathered at the back of the police line.

A Miraculous Rescue

They held a vigil there, praying for a miracle. As all the contemplation about the search operation was still ongoing at the surface, David was deep within the cave, doubting his survival. He has lost count of how many hours he has spent inside the Nickajack Cave, inside an air pocket. He kept his head above water in the 8-inch (20 cm) air pocket.

However, as he stayed longer inside the air pocket, he began to feel the depreciation in the oxygen level around him as the level of carbon dioxide began to rise. Hypoxia was knocking at his door. Hypoxia is a deficiency of oxygen in the body. Mark Caldwell, a National Defense Executive with FEMA (Federal Emergence Management Agency), took an interest in the rescue operation after being informed.

He was determined to do everything possible to ensure the rescue would be carried out successfully. They weren’t sure if David was alive or not. They only hoped that he might have been fortunate to enter an air pocket that could prevent him from drowning in the flooded passages of Nickajack Cave. Caldwell put forth a call to the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) to lower the water level of the whole lake system.

Although doing this will cost the TVA several thousand dollars because they will lose electrical generating capacity, Caldwell was just determined to get everything done to rescue David. Within one hour, the water level was reduced, and the lake was 14 inches (35.5 cm) lower than before. This allowed the rescue team to conduct their underwater search.

Then, Buddy Lane & Dennis Curry, his lieutenant friend, went into the cave after they became familiar with the cave passages through the survey map previously taken before the cave became flooded. Lane and Curry wore normal cave diving gear. They then proceeded into the cave. They occasionally saw large fish that appeared before them.

They were frightened by it, but they continued the search. They kept shouting “David Gant” at intervals. All the responses they received were echoing from the myriad of passages. David was nowhere to be found! Miraculously, at one point, they heard a response from a very deep passage within the cave.

It was David. He had been kept alive by a miracle. The oxygen level in the air pocket where he was had significantly reduced and he was almost losing consciousness. Fortunately for him, the water in the air pocket had dropped down about an inch 2.5 cm, and there was a rush of air into the air pocket that made David begin to regain strength.

Lane and Curry began to swim toward David’s voice until they found him in a very low airspace section that separated them from him. When the two of them got in front of David, he was very surprised. Their lights were blinding him when he saw them, and David shouted, “You are angels!”. He wasn’t sure whether it was a reality or if he was hallucinating.

He had spent 17 hours alone in the dark air pocket. In a vision, David saw two angels that came to take him home. He had seen visions of the several searches that were ongoing at the entrance. He had also seen his family waiting and praying outside the cave for him. He had seen two angels come to him, escorting him to heaven.

Now, he is unsure whether the rescue team was real or another vision. Lane and Curry guided David through the low cave passageways till they got to where the boat was waiting to take him to the mouth of the cave. David never thought he would see the light of another day again. As he came out of the cave, people began to shout, “He’s Alive!” It was indeed a miracle.

The captain of the dive team, in his official report, wrote, “Found victim alive. Everyone is happy.” David became a born-again Christian while alone in the dark cave. He later shared the testimony of his angelic rescue in the years following the incident across the South — The Bat Cave Miracle.

As Mark Caldwell said in an interview, “One could not have fictionally scripted the synthesis of so many events necessary for David’s survival.” Looking at all the events that perfectly aligned for David’s survival, Cardwell believed that God’s hands were directing all of them. David’s friend was able to get to the surface and call for help.

David was able to get an air pocket that kept him from drowning for a good 17 hours. Lane and Curry were able to get 1962 TVA survey maps that were as old as thirty years on a Sunday morning. They were able to accurately interpret the map. Though they had no evidence that David was still alive, they re-initiated a rescue operation instead of a recovery operation.

Although it would have a significant impact on them, they were able to persuade TVA to lower the water level in Nickajack Lake. All these things were the miraculous events that took place for David to survive the cave diving incident.

The story of David Gant’s miraculous rescue from the Nickajack Cave is a testament to the power of faith, perseverance, and the incredible efforts of the rescue team. Against all odds, David survived 17 hours alone in a dark air pocket, guided by a vision of angels. The coordinated efforts of the dive rescue teams and the decision to lower the water level in the lake ultimately led to his rescue. The events surrounding his survival are seen by many as a series of miracles, reminding us of the extraordinary possibilities that can unfold in the face of danger and adversity.

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Rebecca Penrose
Rebecca, an experienced blogger, delves into the world of diving accidents, sharing insights, stories, and valuable lessons learned. Dive in and explore the depths of underwater safety.
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