In the first two articles in this series, we discussed the geological origins and early explorers of the caves of Jamaica. In this third part, we will move on to current cave explorations.
It has been our intent in this series to give the readers not just a dry repetition of facts, but also a true idea of what exploring the underground of the island is really like. We will attempt to do this now.
In the way of a preamble, it should be noted that the author of these articles is the Administrator of the Jamaican Caves Organization, a non-profit group that explores, assesses, and monitors the caves and sinkholes of the island. Although caving is regularly conducted by JCO members, most of our work is done during major expeditions, of two weeks extent, that occur every two to three months. The most recent of these took place from January 24 to February 5, 2004, and was very successful.
During our visits to the caves, we collect particular assessment data, georeference the entrance positions, and keep good notes. I can think of no better way to give you a feel for caving in Jamaica than to excerpt from the notes of the most recent expedition. Two of the visited caves and sinkholes were of particular interest, Thatchfield Great Cave and Hutchinson’s Hole.
Because of the length of the notes, we are presenting Part III in two chapters. The first chapter, Hutchinson’s Hole, follows.
Hutchinson’s Hole is a very notorious, very deep sinkhole in St. Ann. It is notorious for a good reason; it has consumed the bodies of many people over the centuries. The first to find an untimely end in this pit were the victims of Lewis Hutchinson in the late 1700’s. Mr. Hutchinson owned an estate at the south end of the Pedro bottomland, through which travelers were forced to pass, due to high hills on either side, to proceed on through Pedro district. Mr. Hutchinson took advantage of this by robbing, and then killing travelers who were unlucky enough to pass his way. The bodies were then disposed of by dumping them in a nearby, very deep sinkhole. Eventually, Lewis Hutchinson was found out, convicted and hung from the yardarm in Kingston.
It is unknown how many might have met their end in this same hole between the late 1700’s and the early 2000’s, but it is known for a fact that in late 2003 this dread hole claimed another victim. We know this for a fact because we were the ones who found him and brought the body out.
The following account is based on a Press Release issued by the JCO on Feb 8, 2003. Our activities at Hutchinson’s on Feb 1 and 4 had both been well covered in the Jamaican press and television and we wished to get our side of the story out at first chance. Although the account is not terribly representative of our normal work, it may serve as an example of what one can encounter when visiting the underground realms of Jamaica. It will be followed by an account of a recent visit to Thatchfield Great Cave, in Chapter 2, and readers will find it much more pleasant.
The JCO was first contacted about the disappearance of Carlton Rose on January 5, 2004, by a person who was familiar with the situation. A copy of the email follows:
Mon 1/5/2004 7:36 PM
we live in St.Mary but my hubby has family & land in the Bensonton/Pedro district of St..Ann
The sink hole on the land is the one made famous by the mass muderer Lewis Hutchinson in the 1700’s..recently a local man threw himself down the sink hole, he has not been recovered….the hole is now the size that could swallow a big car…we would really like to know how deep it is..maybe a camera could be lowered down with light first…anyone who goes down comes back up with the willies!!!
so what do you think..I’m happy to field for help from farign’…hope to hear from you soon
Because there was a possibility that a body might be found, we asked Libby to contact the local police. An excerpt from the email follows:
Fri 1/9/2004 10:30 PM
“Do you know if there is definitely a possibility that a man recently jumped down the hole? If so, we should probably contact the police before we go down, and make arrangements to get him out. Because the hole is 325 feet deep, we will only want to go down and come back up once… it’s rather hard on the legs doing it twice. If we find pieces of a body down there, we’ll need a body-bag etc to take care of it, and we’ll need to have a crew ready up-top to haul it out.
I’m hoping the guy actually took off to Kingston and just told people he was going to jump in to explain his disappearance.
Four days later, we received this reply:
Tue 1/20/2004 7:20 AM
finally got hold of Inspector Plamer at St.Ann Bay station, Claremont didn’t think they could handle it !! anyway..Insp: Palmer, laughed & laughed when I explained everything to him…he also thinks your crazy! but no problem going down the hole, he says its up to Uncle anyway to give permission, which he has, so you are good to go…I’m not having much luck with a body bag though, the police dont have any (not surprized) he said I would have to ask a funeral home but they dont want to give me one unless they get the job for the funeral…so we are trying to sort out some sort of bag for you..we think he maybe still in one peice as it must be cold down there..is there anything else I can do?
Our reply, and final email prior to the events described below, follows:
Tue 1/20/2004 8:54 AM
“Thanks for your efforts, Libby. With all the dead bodies showing up in Ja so often, it’s surprising that it’s so hard to find a bag to put one in. So it goes…
Let’s hope he’s not in there, but if he is, he’ll have fallen 325 feet. There is oftten soft sand at the bottom of sinkholes, (it makes people think that they’re bottomless because they don’t hear a rock hit at the bottom), so maybe he’ll still be in one piece. If so, I guess we could manage something with nylon webbing, but the temperature is usually about 20 C / 70 F even in the deepest caves/sinks… he won’t be in the greatest shape. The schedule is still solid. We will arrive at your Uncle’s on the evening of Sat Jan 31.
Prior to our arrival on the scene, we were unaware that any attempts to recover the body had already been made and even that there was a real likelihood that a man had truly gone in. As far as we knew, this was just another story like many we had heard before that had proven to be false, and we discounted the possibility of us actually finding anything. Coincidentally, we had already included a descent into the hole in our schedule due to its depth and historical notoriety, and so we had made arrangements to visit Bensonton in the Pedro district on Feb 1, 2004.
On the evening of Jan 31, 2004, after having made that day a first descent into the 70 metre, (235 ft), “Bertie Sinkhole”, in the Aboukir District of St Ann, we arrived at the shop of “Ms Mac”, and “Leslie Morrison”, the owner of the land where the hole is located, in Bensonton, where we had been offered free accommodation. A discussion with Mr Morrison and a number of the local people over the course of several hours, and several Red Stripes, supplied additional information that made us aware that the Fire Dept had lowered a man into the hole. At this point, we did not yet accept that a man might have fallen/jumped in. The story we were hearing was doubtful in some ways; we were told the Fire Dept had lowered a man in 520 ft although we knew the hole to be listed at 325 ft; we were told that at that depth the member of the Fire Dept could still not see the bottom. This did not make sense. As a result, we did not accept anything we were hearing as fact and did not alter our plans for the next day.
On the morning of Sun, Feb 1, 2004, at 09:30 EST, we were at the hole and beginning to rig the drop. There were four of us: Ivor Conolley, Mark Bellinger, Delroy Williams, and myself, Ronald Stefan Stewart. We intended to put two cavers into the hole, Stewart and Conolley, and have Bellinger and Williams up top for communications and crowd-control. This latter factor, crowd-control, was our greatest concern; we had anticipated that we might have a large audience, and because any rocks dislodged or thrown in by the crowd would fall upon the cavers at the bottom, from a great height, keeping the spectators well back from the hole was critically important.
Before describing our rigging method, I will give a brief account of the nature of the hole. The entrance to Hutchinsons hole is at the bottom of a valley and immediately surrounded by inclined rock walls rising some 10 metres above the entrance. These would prove to be convenient for the seating of the spectators but offered more potential for danger for us. The entrance proper is about 3 metres by 5 metres, (10 x 16 ft), and consists primarily of rock outcroppings with jagged edges. This would necessitate careful hanging of the rope to avoid abrasion and cutting. The hole maintains the 3 x 5 m dimension for about 15 m, and then begins to widen to a final 18 x 25 m at the bottom. The floor of the cave is highest at the NE, 90 m, and lowest at the SW, 98 m. The highest part is directly under the entrance and this is where a rope will touch bottom.
The rigging of the drop was completed by 11:00 AM EST, and then the first caver, Stewart, got on rappel and headed down. By this time the crowd had reached about 50 – 60 people.
A personal recollection of that descent follows:
My entry into the hole did not begin in the most elegant manner; the crew up-top did not anticipate the tension that would come onto the webbing strap that would ease the main-line, with me attached to it with a figure-8 descender, out to the centre of the hole. As a result, I immediately fell several feet down the rock wall, banging my left knee into it in the process. After growling at the crew, and the crowd, I was gently swung out the rest of the way. My rappel now began.
At first, I did nothing but concentrate on the mechanics of the descent, checking friction and speed and the resulting heat in the descender. I was completely in bright daylight, with a watching crowd, for the first 10 metres. Within another 5 metres, I had left the faces and the sun behind. As I came into darkness, I could now begin to see the depths of the hole beneath me lit by the beam of my headlamp. The hole slowly widened, the walls drew back from the rope, but the bottom was not yet visible. By 25 metres, I was hanging freely away from the fluted rock-wall and began a slow spin induced by the rappel device. Adjusting the beam of my headlamp to the tightest focus, I could now make out the bottom of the cave, with rope piled safely on the floor. I now knew that I would reach the bottom.
As the walls receded further, and I could see the sinkhole in its entirety, I began to have the impression of incredible height. Although this hole was only another 30 m, (100 ft), deeper than the one we had done the day before, it felt like much, much, more. I paid special attention to my control hand on the rope and slowed down to a crawl. I had no wish to gain too much speed on this drop.
At long last, the floor drew near, being now only 20 metres below me, and at this point a horrible stench became discernible. I came to the grim realization that the story of the fallen man was true. I had no real choice but to continue my descent. Even though I was rigged to change to ascent, we had committed ourselves, (in actual fact, I had committed us), to the finding of the body. We had even offered to bring it back out. I began to understand the enormity of what I had gotten us into.
With growing queasiness, I completed the rest of the descent, touching bottom 20 minutes after I began. As I kept my face towards the wall, trying to ignore the foul smell that enveloped me, I removed the descender from the line, took off the ascenders that would hamper my movement on the floor, and then took out the walkie-talkie to communicate to those above that I had reached bottom with over 200 ft of rope to spare. This done, I slowly turned to scan the floor of the sinkhole around me. To the NW, 6 metres away, I saw a running shoe. I took several steps in that direction and saw the outline of a body, strangely coloured, greyish-white, and flat. It was unsettling; it did not look like a body yet it undeniably was one. It did not appear to be real, more like an image than something with substance. I felt rather apprehensive. Another step closer, and a further look, convinced me that I was indeed viewing the body of Carlton Rose, over three months after his fall. I retreated to a distance of about 15 m, taking refuge in a small embayment in the wall of the chamber, and then radioed to the crew above, using a pre-arranged code, the news of what I had found. The information that I was safely clear, and that Ivor Conolley could come ahead, was made in a more open fashion.
During my time alone, some 40 minutes, awaiting Ivor’s arrival in the depths, I attempted to do a cursory assessment of the biology and physical condition of the chamber, but because of the distraction of the smell managed to do nothing but find several Cave Crickets, an Amblypygid, and determine that the low chambers at the deepest part of the hole were choked with rocks. This is the apparent exit for waters that enter from above. As I wandered around the part of the hole furthest from Mr Rose, I sang “Rivers of Babylon” several times, and “Many Rivers to Cross”, smoked cigarettes, and successfully prevented myself from vomiting. At last, I saw the form of Ivor Conolley approaching from the heights above, and began to feel less utterly alone, or rather, alone but for the duppies that must surely abide in that darkness. I had not been able to prevent myself from pondering on the number of people that this hole had eaten over the centuries, first assisted by Lewis Hutchinson in the late 1700’s, and continuing to Carlton’s fatal entry. I was determined that I would not be one that would stay, but that I would instead return to the light and fresh air of the outside world.
I must thank Mark and Delroy for giving me some company via the walkie-talkie during this 40 minute wait in the darkness, by telling me of the weather conditions above, and making idle chit-chat. Their unspoken understanding of how I felt, and their simple but effective way of alleviating it was greatly appreciated.
Ivor reached bottom and as he got off-rope I radioed to those above that he was safely down.
I showed the location of the body to Ivor. After he had made a brief observation, we began to discuss what we should do next. We decided that we must provide a way of having an identification made by the family once we had reached the surface. I would use the camera I had with me to take photographs of the corpse and we would take the shoe. There was nothing else obvious to do; there were no recoverable clothes that we could see and the shoe was the only choice. As I took photos, Ivor took a stick that had fallen in, and attempted to remove the shoe. The entire foot separated from the body. We would have to take it also. All that we had to put it in, not wanting to use our packs, was a black plastic bag of the kind used in shops. Ivor put the foot into the bag using the stick. We then talked of how to get it up. It was decided that Ivor would hang it from his harness on a length of webbing. I confess that I was unable to do it. This decided, I rigged for ascent, gave the word to the crew above that a climber was on-rope, and I began a rapid ascent out of the hole. In my haste, I neglected to lock the one carabiner that attached my Jumar ascenders to the line, something I realized only after I had gotten into fresh air some 25 metres up and stopped to double-check my rigging. This potentially disastrous event was due either to my distraction or the hole trying to eat yet another body; I don’t know which. It is a mistake that I have never made before and will never make again.
The rest of the ascent went well, and after 25 minutes on-rope, I arrived at the top of the hole to make the strangest exit from a cave or sinkhole that I have ever experienced. As I completed the final few metres, I found myself rising into a what seemed like the middle of a football stadium. Around me, row upon row, about 400 people sat on the rocks that rise up from the entrance. Some were dressed in their best clothes, some looked like school-teachers or secretaries, there were rastas with dreadlocks smoking large spliffs, and as I was hauled to the side of the pit, they all clapped and cheered. After getting off-rope, I managed a couple of brief bows and waves in acknowledgement, and then sat myself down in the least visible spot. A beer was thrust into my left hand, and a cigarette into my right. Looking up, I saw a TV news crew recording this bizarre event. I had suddenly emerged from the loneliest, spookiest, place that I have ever visited, into what seemed like a sporting event with me as the star attraction.
I instructed the crew to let Ivor know that he could come ahead. He acknowledged this and reported that he was rigging for ascent. Ivor Conolley now began a trip that can only be described as horrendous. Although his actual ascent of the rope went splendidly, and he encountered no problems, the foot hung, stinking, a metre below him for the entire 300 ft. I must express my deepest respect for what he did. I could barely manage to get near the body without vomiting, and he managed to bring that thing up, following him, for 30 minutes without losing his concentration on the mechanics of the ascent itself.
During this time, I refused to answer the many questions that were asked by the surrounding crowd with anything other than statements about the physical nature of the hole itself. A report on what we had discovered would have to be made first to the police and family.
We had asked that the police be contacted as soon as I had reached the surface, and Ivor’s most immediate inquiries on reaching the top were regarding the time of their arrival. He sat himself on a rock, unmoving, with the foot still attached to the harness, and maintained an expression of utter stoicism. Those in the crowd nearest to us began to realize, by the smell emanating from the bag, what we had found below. The party atmosphere that had existed until this point began to be replaced with relative silence and sombre faces.
After some 20 minutes of Ivor sitting with the foot, Inspector Jackson of the Claremont police arrived. The foot was finally gotten rid of, taken by Inspector Jackson, and we were instructed to report to the Claremont police station to give statements as soon as we had completed our derigging of the drop.
Before Inspector Jackson had departed, foot in hand, (actually in a large cream cracker box), he had strongly suggested that because we had re-opened this matter, we had a responsibility to complete things by retrieving the body. This, needless to say, was not something that we wished to do. We felt that we had done our part by locating it, and that govt agencies should take it from there. The matter was left unresolved when Mr Jackson left.
We proceeded to Claremont, and had our statements recorded by Detective Brown of the St Ann JCF. The question of our removing of the body was not discussed, other than our reiterating our reluctance to do it. Statements done, we climbed into our cars, and then Mark and Ivor headed for Kingston, and Delroy and myself returned to Windsor, Trelawny.
The next day, Feb 2, 2004, JCO members, Stewart, McCall, and Taylor conducted an assessment of the Peterkin/Rota system in St James, focussing on the work to be done and giving as little thought as possible to the events of the preceding day. On our return to Coxheath/Windsor at 18:00 EST, we found that our involvement in the matter was not yet finished. We had messages from the police and the family asking us to contact them as soon as possible. I first spoke with Ivor by phone, and heard that he had already been contacted and they wanted us to bring the body up. Ivor and myself discussed it at length and concluded that we must do it.
Supt Palmer, of the St Ann’s Bay police, when called by myself, made it clear that everyone very much wanted this situation to be finalized by the removal of the body. The police wanted to close the file; the family wanted to give the late Mr Rose a proper burial. Our understanding is that there was no one else capable of doing the job; others had tried, with no success, and had no intention of trying again. Reluctantly, I agreed that we would do it, on Wed, Feb 4, 2004. We asked that disinfectant, gloves, masks, a body-bag, and a shovel be waiting for us at the hole.
On Wed, Feb 4, 2004, a crew consisting of Stewart, Conolley, Taylor, Williams, and Lilly Bolt, proceeded from Coxheath to Hutchinsons Hole. We arrive at 10:15 EST, slightly later than our intended 10:00 arrival. We wasted little time in preparing to rig the drop. A police barrier, consisting of tape, had been placed across the track to the pit; we had asked that a chosen group of 10 men, who would assist in the hauling out of the body, be the only ones allowed at the site. We did not want another large crowd on hand during the task. Unfortunately, many people snuck in by various other routes and we eventually, once again, had an audience numbering in the hundreds.
The body-bag was less sturdy than we had hoped for, and had no haul loops. A man from the funeral home, who was on the scene, suggested that we put rocks in the corners and then tie around the inner/smaller part of the bag at the corners in order to attach it to the rope. The relative fragility of the bag dictated that the main-line be perfectly centred in the hole for the hauling stage of the job so that it would not be torn open on rocks during its ascent. This would require two separate rigging set-ups, one that would have the rope closer to the wall for our descent and ascent, and a second afterwards that would be suitable for the hauling out of the bag. The method used was as follows: Two ropes were used to divert the main-line, set at approximate angles of 140 and 220 degrees from the horizontal line made by the diverted main-line, and anchored to trees in a way that would allow their easy adjustment. This would enable the precise positioning of the top of the vertical part of the main-line. We would first begin with the main-line close to the wall, allowing us to both descend and do what was required. After tying the bag to the very end of the rope at the bottom, we would both ascend, reposition the drop point, replace the carabiners with a pulley, and then begin the hauling stage.
We first lowered into the hole, on the main-line, a duffel bag with shovel, disinfectant etc, so that we would have no load to carry ourselves. Because I had gone in first on Feb 1, Ivor went first on Feb 4. When word reached us from Ivor that he was down, I got on rappel and followed. I had been warned by Ivor, from below, that the spinning induced by the descenders was much more severe than that encountered on Feb 1, the rope being already twisted by the previous session and now having an even great twist imparted. I fully appreciated what Ivor had described as I reached the part of the descent where one no longer is within leg-reach of the wall; I began to spin at a rate of about 10 rpm. The spin increased as I went further down until I was forced to close my eyes because it was so distracting. By 200 ft down I was spinning at about 20 rpm and could only open my eyes for brief seconds to observe the distance remaining until I touched down. I steadily proceeded down the line by touch alone and the brief glimpses of the floor spinning rapidly below me were as much as I could manage without becoming thoroughly disoriented. I allowed myself to drop at a more rapid pace than normal just so that I could end this bizarre re-entry into Hutchinson’s Hole. I was soon safely down and found that Ivor had soaked the body in disinfectant minutes after reaching the bottom himself, thus eliminating a great part of the stench by replacing it with a strong odour of chemicals. I felt encouraged that I would be able to assist in the moving of the remains into the bag without vomiting.
I donned a surgical mask and gloves, and joined Ivor close to the remains. We opened and set the bag about 4 ft from the body. It was extremely gruesome but I still believed I could be of help. After saying a prayer, Ivor attempted the first shoveling of the remains into the bag. The stench erupted, worse than ever and I staggered back retching. Ivor poured more disinfectant on and then tried again. It was still horrible. As I repeatedly approached, then stumbled back trying not to vomit into the surgical mask, Ivor managed to complete the job and zip the bag closed. I don’t know how he managed it. Whatever the reason, my weakness, or Ivor’s strength, I was mostly useless at the bottom of the hole that day. If it hadn’t been for Ivor, I don’t know if it would have gotten done.
After we had attached the bag to the bottom of the rope, using webbing around rocks in the four corners and then doubling it over so that there were only two haul points and thus a smaller horizontal profile, Ivor, bless his heart, allowed me to ascend first. I made sure to check my gear thoroughly this time, in fact to the point where it was very difficult to unlock the biners once I had reached the top, I got on-rope and headed up. Some 25 minutes later, I once again reached the surface in the middle of a crowd of spectators who applauded and cheered. The TV crew was back, and we also had a reporter present from the Jamaica Observer. I had word sent down to Ivor that I was off-rope and that he could get the hell out of there. Within 30 minutes, he was up and receiving his own round of applause.
We now proceeded to adjust the rigging so that the carabiners were replaced with a pulley and the main-line was centred in the opening to the pit. Our chosen haulers were assembled, and while they pulled in rope, I kept a Jumar ascender in place on the line to act as a ratchet. Surprisingly quickly, the bag rose out of the hole to hang in mid-air over the centre of the hole. The crowd who had waited so many hours to see this spectacle, upon seeing the shapeless lump in the bag, and smelling the stench that emanated from the bag despite two gallons of disinfectant and a double layer of plastic, recoiled in horror, holding hands and clothes over their noses. They fled from their viewing gallery, on the rocks, to the pasture a hundred yards away. Some left the scene completely. We had made it clear that our job ended as soon as the bag had reached the edge of the pit, so we called for the men from the funeral home to take up position to haul it in from the edge. It took about 10 – 15 minutes for the medical doctor who would conduct the on-scene autopsy, the funeral workers, and the police, to prepare themselves and during this time we left the bag hanging out in the middle of the pit, looking like a set-piece from some theatre of the macabre.
I took a perverse pleasure in watching the now diminished crowd look in horror upon this spectacle. I couldn’t help but think that this was not now nearly as entertaining as they had hoped. When the doctor and others were ready, Delroy and Martel slowly released the diversion ropes and the bag came to the edge o the pit. The funeral home workers hauled it out and then carried it to a large, rectangular metal pan that had been set 30 metres away. The bag was put in this, and then opened. The doctor, in gown and mask, performed the autopsy by stirring the remains with a wooden stick he had picked up off the ground. A hard-core group of about 20 audience members closed in and watched. When the autopsy was complete, and it had been observed that every bone in the body was broken and one side of the skull smashed in, (the not surprising result of a 300 ft fall), the bag was zipped closed and it was carried away in the pan to receive a long-delayed, proper burial.
This ends our account of the events surrounding the location, and removal, of the body of Carlton Rose, Bensonton, St Ann, at Hutchinsons Hole, on Feb 1 and 4, 2004.
It must be noted that the presence of the surface support crew, Bellinger, Williams, Taylor, and Bolt, was crucial in the successful completion of this task. The entire team was responsible for what was done at Hutchinson’s, not just the two cavers who made the actual descents. Without the focused work of the entire crew, things would not have gone as they did.
We would like to extend our most heartfelt sympathies to the family of Mr. Rose. We truly hope that you may now begin to find peace in your lives once again.
We would like to thank the Jamaica Constabulary Force for their valuable assistance on Feb 4, 2004.
We would like to express our deepest respect to the members of the Fire Dept who attempted the initial retrieval of the body. The fact that they would even attempt such a thing, without proper gear or training, reflects well on their dedication to their job.
Ronald Stefan Stewart
Administrator of the Jamaican Caves Organization