A FATAL ERROR
By Hugh Blanchard
The place – a long mile up remote, little known Goss Canyon in La
Crescenta next to the Angeles National Forest. The time – the morning
of September 17, 2000. Air Force Master Sergeant Paul Hayden and his
brother start walking into the old horizontal water well. Hayden
had grown up in La Crescenta and had gone into the old well, opened in
1907, many times before. He was now a skilled U.S. Air Force
para-rescue instructor. On this trip he intended to go farther than
ever beforeby passing sumps hundreds of feet deep in the old
About 150’ beyond the water’s edge they found an old ceiling
collapse had partially blocked the tunnel forming a dam which flooded
the area beyond. Several ventilation fans were installed to increase
the oxygen level to an acceptable range. Mark Lonsdale, training
officer of theLA Sheriff’s Dive Team and a nationally known cave and
mine rescue diver certified by the NSS Cave Diving Section , entered
the sump occasionally passing through air pockets.
About 185’ into the flooded section and over 400’ from the
entrance Lonsdale found Sergeant Hayden’s body in a long
partially water filled passage. His head was under water and the
regulator was out of his mouth. His scuba tanks were nearly full.
Lonsdale fortunately resisted the temptation to remove his own
regulator. Subsequent samples from the air space showed only 4%
oxygen. Normal air contains 21% oxygen. Breathing air containing
15% oxygen will cause dizziness and headaches and air containing 9%
oxygen will cause unconsciousness. Breathing air with 7% or less oxygen
will cause the required oxygen supply to the brain to be
immediately shut off, a condition called asphxia.
It was reported that prior to the trip Hayden had agreed with his
para-rescue co-workers that he should not remove his regulator . He
obviously did – a small mistake with fatal results!
I recently walked up Goss Canyon and easily found the old well
now strongly secured with a locked gate. I talked briefly
to the owner, a Mrs. Pruitt, who says she discourages visitors because
of liability concerns.
My sincere appreciation to grotto member Rich Meline who patiently
explained the details of the rescue and the cause of death. Rich is a
long time member of the LA County Fire Dept. Search and Rescue Team
which includes mine and cave rescues. He and his co-workers in
the past year or so have done extensive training and search
exercises in the Big Horn mine system near Mt. Baden-Powell which
has an estimated length of two miles, arguably the largest mine in
Rich emphasizes that mines and wells are inherently more dangerous
than caves since there is much more likelihood of collapse and the
possible presence of toxic gases and low oxygen levels. All of their
exploration of the Big Horn is done with atmospheric
Less than two years later a similar tragedy occurred in the
Cleveland National Forest on June 23, 2002 when two young brothers
free-dived a sump in one of the numerous entrances to the old Blue
Light Mine near Silverado in Orange County. According to the state mine
report they died almost immediately after exiting the sump since the
air in the passage beyond was found to contain only 4% oxygen.
As I write this article the bodies of three teenagers have just been
removed from a labyrinth of mines along the Mississippi River in
St. Paul, Minnesota and a fourth is fighting for his life. At least
five other young people have died in these mines in the past 20
years. They were originally dug by sandstone miners back in the 1880’s.
The cause of death was reported as high levels of carbon monoxide
fumes. The air also reportedly contained only 15% oxygen.
Does this mean that we should stop exploring mines? No more
than we should stop swimming in the ocean or lakes because there
are drownings or stop climbing mountains because of climbing
accidents or stop caving because there are caving accidents.
It does mean that we should exercise common sense in our mine
exploring activities. For example plunging into a sump is certainly a
high risk undertaking which should be left to the experts. I have been
in the Big Horn Mine with its many levels and thousands of feet of
passage many times but never by myself.
There are two local mines I will never go in. They are the Governor
and Red Rover near Acton off the Antelope Valley Freeway. They are
certainly vertical going down a reported thousand feet with water at
the bottom. The body of one man who perished in the Governor in 1981
has never been recovered. It was simply too dangerous to attempt a body
recovery. A successful rescue of another person was made in 1995 only
after an extensive rescueoperation.
Exploration of local mines can be rewarding and exciting but please use common sense.