Photo by Ron Simmons

Collins' saga turned into a national sensation
By Art Jester
Lexington Herald-Leader, 4/8/01

There was no television, of course, to broadcast the real-life drama when Floyd Collins was trapped and died in Sand Cave in Kentucky's Mammoth Cave region in 1925.

But there were newspapers, and in this instance there was especially the Courier-Journal. The Louisville newspaper jumped on the story of the imperiled Collins by dispatching a reporter named William Burke "Skeets" Miller.

Miller's enterprising coverage turned the tragic episode into a national event and earned Miller a Pulitzer Prize.

Some have said that between World War I and World War II, the only news events that gripped the nation more than the Floyd Collins saga were Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927 and the kidnapping of his baby in 1932. Collins' story even inspired Todd County native Robert Penn Warren to write his novel The Cave, although it is regarded as one of the great author's lesser works.

"People get killed in disasters all the time, but they are usually just statistics," says longtime caver Roger W. Brucker, co-author with Robert K. Murray of Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins (The University Press of Kentucky, 347 pages, $18 paperback).

"In this case, Floyd Collins was a statistic until 'Skeets' Miller got onto the scene," Brucker says.

Collins entered the cave on Jan. 30 in search of a larger cave, but his foot got pinned in a narrow passage. Rescuers dug a shaft to facilitate their efforts, but Collins was dead when they reached him on Feb. 16.

No one knows how long Collins remained alive. It may have been only four or five days, because dripping water could have quickly caused hypothermia.

Before Collins died, Miller crawled into the cave, getting close enough to touch Collins, talk to him and pass along coffee, milk and whiskey.

The authors of Trapped! call this the "most unusual interview in the history of American journalism. Never before had a newspaper reporter been able to touch and talk with a man who was so helplessly buried alive."

Miller read Collins several telegrams and told him that thousands were praying for him.

It's mighty fine to know so many people are pullin' for me," Collins said. "Tell 'em I love 'em all."

Brucker says Miller's coverage captured the nation's hearts and minds because it "portrayed Collins as a flesh-and-blood human being, a person of unusual courage and a person in a desperate situation."

That Collins went down into the treacherous Sand Cave is "the prototype of everything you shouldn't do" while caving. Brucker says Collins made three key mistakes:

  • He went alone.
  • He did not carry three sources of light.
  • He did not tell people where he was going.

Furthermore, exploring Sand Cave was dangerous because it was filled with "breakdown," loose rocks that do not have the firmness of limestone passages that have been eroded by water over a long time.

Originally, Collins' body was buried in the side yard of the family house near Crystal Cave. In 1927, against the wishes of many family members except his father, the body was put in a coffin and placed into Crystal Cave. The body was stolen at one point. Since 1989, it has been buried at the Mammoth Cave Baptist Church Cemetery.

Visitors can go to the entrance of Sand Cave, but it is sealed.

Brucker, incidentally, is the co-author of a new book Beyond Mammoth Cave: A Tale of Obsession in the World's Longest Cave. He and co-author James Borden predict that the known size of Mammoth Cave - already the world's longest with more than 350 mapped miles - will grow to 1,000 miles as the result of further explorations before the end of the 21st century.

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