SALT LAKE CITY — James Felton says to hear the story of his son's heroic rescue from the men who spent hours in a Utah cave meticulously working to get him out is unbelievable.
"To be standing next to a guy who physically carried your son out of a hole that was 200 feet basically, with a light strapped to his head, it’s unbelievable,” Felton said.
Salt Lake Fire Capt. David Dixon insists it was a team effort to get Zachary Felton out of that cave. And to Dixon, who has been exploring caves for 45 years, it wasn't all work.
"For us it was more of an adventure. But for him, it was probably more torture. But he did real well,” he said.
Although his son still has a long road to recovery, James Felton said he was in tears as he listened to Dixon recount the dramatic 12-hour rescue. Felton called Dixon and fellow Salt Lake Fire Capt. Steve Crandall "selfless heroes" who deserve a lot of recognition, despite the firefighters' humble demeanors.
Zachary Felton, 24, of San Diego, was exploring Little Brushcreek Cave, located in the Ashley National Forest near Dinosaur National Monument, on Sunday with three friends. It's considered Utah's longest cave.
James Felton said his son is "one of those people who has no fear.” Even though the four friends had no caving experience or climbing experience, they had read about the cave and stopped by to see it as part of a road trip.
"This is not something he’s ever attempted before,” the father said. "This was their first adventure out here. They were just about to leave the cave when this all happened."
As they began to leave, Zachary Felton slipped and fell 50 to 100 feet. Based on where he was when he fell, his father said rescuers had to pull him up at least 150 vertical feet to get him out of the cave.
Felton was badly injured.
"Broken ankle, broken pelvis, broken wrists, broken elbows, broken jaw, cheek bone, eye socket. So, it’s pretty hairy,” his father said, describing the injuries.
Zachary Felton's friend had to free climb to get out of the cave to get to an area with cellphone reception to call 911. That took about an hour, according to authorities. James Felton said it was about four hours from the time of the fall to when the first rescuers got down into the cave close to his son.
But their ropes were about 50 feet too short, he said.
After learning how far down the injured man was, help was summoned from the Uintah County Sheriff's Office and its search and rescue team, the Vernal Fire Department, Wasatch County, Utah County, as well as the Utah Cavers Association and National Cavers Association. The first responders stayed in the cave 12 hours giving support to Felton.
Also called were Dixon and Crandall, who are each platoon leaders at Salt Lake City Fire Station 5, which specializes in mountain and swift water rescues. The two expert rescuers drove three hours to get to the cave entrance.
Dixon and Crandall are two of the department's most veteran rescuers. Dixon said Crandall is recognized as one of the best technical rescuers in the nation and teachers classes all over the world. If he were to be trapped in a cave, he said Crandall is the person he would want to come get him.
Over the next seven hours, Dixon and Crandall meticulously moved Felton through the narrow passages and up the steep cave walls.
"They wouldn’t give him pain medications because they needed him to be ambulatory. They even had to make him stand up to get through one crevasse and they had to suck in their guts to squeeze through. And they had to push him through,” James Felton said. "The story is unbelievable."
Felton said they couldn't put ropes around his son to pull him through the narrow passages because they wouldn't fit.
"He had compound fractures on both his wrists, and his bones were sticking out of both his wrists and both of his elbows. And he had a broken ankle, broken pelvis, and a brain bleed at that time. He had to stand up and (walk through)," his father said.
Dixon confirmed there was one area that was a "tight squeeze" that required Zachary to get up and walk a few steps. He also said the last vertical portion of the rescue was challenging.
"That was really confined and we had to manipulate him. It was pretty tight access,” he said.
Most of the rescue was conducted in confined spaces, Dixon said. Only Dixon, Crandall and two Vernal firefighters who were first on the scene made it to the bottom portion of the cave, mainly because that's all the people who could fit, he said.
Zachary Felton never lost consciousness, his father said. Dixon recalled trying to keep the conversation light in order to keep not only Felton's spirits up, but also the two Vernal rescuers who by that point were understandably very tired.
"I teased (Zachary) about what he was going to do about the movie rights and which actor he wanted to play him, and told him I thought I should be played by Brad Pitt,” Dixon recalled with a laugh.
The overall message to Felton, however, was, "It’s going to take some time, it’s going to take some effort. But we’ll make it happen,” he said.
While the rescue itself took about 12 hours, Felton said his son lay hurt in the cave for 14 to 15 hours. By the time he was flown to University Hospital, it had been about 20 hours since his fall. The Vernal rescuers were in the cave for about 12 hours.
"Two guys from Vernal really did a stellar job. They really worked their guts out,” Dixon said. "They were really ragged. They did a lot of work."
Since the fall, Zachary Felton has had three surgeries. His father said he needed two blood transfusions on Tuesday night and had surgery on his pelvis on Wednesday. He is expected to remain hospitalized for a minimum of two more weeks. According to a GoFundMe account created to help pay for his medical expenses, "The extent of his injuries is horrific, and it is a miracle that he is alive. His road to recovery is expected to be long and painful."1 comment on this story
But James Felton said Wednesday he wants the public to recognize the unsung heroes, Dixon and Crandall. Dixon visited the Feltons at the hospital recently and recounted the rescue to them. James Felton calls them humble "selfless heroes."
Dixon, however, said they didn't want recognition. He credits a team effort for the successful rescue. Some of those other rescuers gave equal praise to Felton.
"I wouldn't have thought anyone could survive what he has if I hadn't seen it for myself. Zach is about as tough as they come," Eric Richards, one of the other rescuers, posted on the GoFundMe page.