Teen rescued from St. Paul cave: 'I was fighting to survive'
When a teenager fell in a St. Paul cave and became trapped, all he could think about was survival.
The group was looking for a way out and the Hudson, Wis., teen handed off two flashlights so he could climb. At the top of the cave, "my so-called friends took off and left the cave," Bungum said, adding that they cut the twine line they’d been using to find their way out and left him in the pitch black with only the things he had in his pockets -- his cellphone, two lighters and a knife.
"I tried climbing down with the light of my lighters, slipped and fell down a 20-foot shaft," landing on a cement slab, Bungum said Monday.
Bungum yelled for help, got no response and tried navigating around the cave to find a high point where he could get a cellphone signal to seek help.
"I was soaked and cold," he said. "I made my way back around looking for ways out with lighters cause my phone died. I scavenged for whatever I could burn to start a fire for heat. I was trapped. I was fighting to survive."
Lambert’s Cave is in Lilydale Regional Park, up the bluffs from Water Street and just west of the High Bridge. St. Paul sealed the main entrance years ago. Bungum apparently entered a recently opened vent hole, and the city will have it closed as quickly as possible, said Brad Meyer, Parks and Recreation spokesman.
The cave apparently is a popular place for exploration, according to the man who has written the book on the Twin Cities’ literal underground.
Along the Mississippi River bluffs, there are about 50 manmade sandstone caves that once were used for growing mushrooms, said Greg Brick, author of "Subterranean Twin Cities."
"There must have been a dozen different styles of ropes that people had left behind to climb into the hole. ... It’s obvious it’s quite the popular spot," Brick said after checking it out Sunday.
St. Paul sealed the entrances to 20 to 30 caves after three teens died from carbon monoxide poisoning in 2004 while exploring caves along Plato Boulevard.
All the caves with blockaded entrances have been marked with "No trespassing" signs, including the entrance to Lambert’s Cave, Meyer said. Bungum said he didn’t see any of the signs on Saturday.
"The signs are there for a reason," Meyer said. "Ultimately, they’re a deterrent to keep people out of the caves because of issues like this. They’re not safe. ... We’re continually finding evidence of trying to breach the barricades. It’s an ongoing task of our maintenance crews to check these caves."
Brick has been looking at other caves in the area. "I was amazed at how well sealed they are," he said. "This one is very much an exception. I think the city has overlooked this particular hole." Meyer said maintenance crews look for instances where barricades have been damaged or dug out.
Paramedics took Bungum to the hospital, where he was treated and released. He said Monday that he’s sore and "pretty beat up -- a lot of cuts, a lot of bruises." His right arm is in a sling for hairline fractures, he said.
He said he also was treated for smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning.
Bungum went into the cave about 10 p.m. Saturday and texted a friend about 10:30 p.m., telling her he was trapped. She thought he was bluffing at first, and Bungum quickly decided he should call her. He said he talked to her for less than a minute before his cellphone battery died.
"I knew I didn’t have enough time to call 911," Bungum said. His friend and someone else came to the area and tried to find him, but couldn’t, Bungum said.
The Fire Department said they got a 911 call at 12:42 a.m. Sunday. "The only info we got was it was a cave under a bridge" in St. Paul, said St. Paul Fire Deputy Chief of Operations Tom McDonough, adding that they tried but failed to pinpoint Bungum’s location based on his cellphone.
Firefighters brought Bungum out at 5:44 a.m. Then, to be sure no one else was missing or trapped, they combed the cave for almost two hours.
Firefighters found smoke and elevated carbon monoxide levels from Bungum’s fire, which was out when they arrived, McDonough said. Bungum said he hadn’t thought about the carbon monoxide risk.
Before Sunday’s case, the St. Paul Fire Department said, they hadn’t been called for a cave rescue in a decade. The city had closed fewer than a dozen caves before 2004, but they began the work in earnest after the deaths of the three teens.
The city has closed and now monitors 25 to 30 cave locations, Meyer said.
Parks and Rec is discussing with the city attorney’s office the possibility of criminal charges against Bungum, Meyer said.
The fire department has no mechanism to charge someone for the cost of a rescue, the city’s fire marshal said.
Bungum said he didn’t know if help was coming and he tried to pass the time, reflecting on his life. He drifted in and out of consciousness, he said, until suddenly he heard, "Is anyone down here?"
"I responded back, ’Yes. Help!,’ " Bungum said. "I heard, ’St. Paul fire,’ and I honestly thought I was dead or something. It was a miracle."