Incident at Merstham

'Twas a warm, sunny day and like all good troglophiles I shrunk away from the sun and headed underground. Actually, Helen Kendall asked if I would take her and her boyfriend Graham ???? for a trip out to the east of Bedlams Bank and into the Chaldon Bottom workings. It seemed like a good idea and they duly picked me up.

We arrived at Rockshaw Road at about 2.15pm to find quite a collection of cars parked on the verge, including the inimitable "Smithmobile". (How does it get through its M.O.T.?) Ron's ladder was padlocked to the shaft and we left our own hanging down as well. While heading east towards St. Pauls Chamber, we met Ron's party that seemed to consist of all sorts of people from different walks of life. Bringing up the rear of the party was Peter Kemp, who I had last cursed at down Ogof Cul when he was putting too much spoil in the hauling bucket. After a chat we said farewell and moved off in our separate directions. At this point, Pete's lamp suddenly died. This was about 3.15pm. His party carried on regardless of his predicament, and we had already gone. Those who know the mines will be aware that they have the property of muffling sound once you go round a corner or two. Any shouting that Pete might have done would have been useless. Not knowing his way round the mine very well, and certainly not well enough to find his way out on brief glimpses that may be possible from a flat lamp, he did the sensible thing and stayed put. After all, Graham would be coming back this way, wouldn't he?

Meanwhile, Ron assumed that Pete had joined me without saying, took his party and his ladder out, and went home. We carried on to have a look at No.9 entrance, the 1609 graffiti and then decided for some unknown reason to leave the mine via No.8 entrance, which was just passable without tackle. (It should be noted that we have since placed a fourth drum on top of the shaft, so may not now be possible to climb it without a ladder.) It is perhaps interesting to note that while I was looking up No.9 entrance shaft, Graham proposed to Helen. She said "Yes!", of course. How romantic!

At about 6.20pm we removed our ladder from No.3 and closed the lid. Ron's ladder and most of the cars that were parked at the roadside had gone. One car remained besides ours. It was noted that the car was taxed in Scotland and that there was a leaflet on the front parcel shelf that indicated the driver was a caver. Nothing else connected the car with the mines, only the location and leaflet. As it seemed odd for a caver to park there and not use No.3 entrance and leave a ladder down it, I made a note of the registration number and make of the car (a blue Ford Escort). We thought that it was possible that cavers could have used Ron or Graham's ladders to go into the mine and intended to also exit via No.8 Entrance, or that they were exploring the surface features. Helen said that she was sure that the Escort had been parked there at 2.30 when we arrived.

There was something about that car being parked there that niggled me, so at about 7.30pm I tried to ring Pete to see if he knew whose car it was. I could not phone Ron as he is, as we all know, not on the phone. The phone number listed for Pete in the latest newsletter was wrong. I tried ringing Chris Fry, compiler of the newsletter, to see if he had the correct one: he did not. Simon Blanchflower, as secretary of the caving club, was able to furnish me with the correct number. There was no reply when I tried several times. At 9.00pm I phoned Dave Bloomfield, a SECRO Warden who lives at Merstham, and asked him to check if the Escort was still there, and if so, to see if anyone was at the bottom of the shaft unable to get out. At 9.40 Dave reported that the car was still there, and no-one was down the shaft. I tried phoning Peter Kemp again, without success.

Just after 10pm I phoned Caterham Police Station, which covers that end of Rockshaw Road, and expressed my concern, and asked if the owner of the Escort could be traced. I phoned up Malcolm Tadd, the other Wealden SECRO warden, to check if he was at home and was relatively sober, and to warn him of an impending call-out. The initial enquiry by the Police established that it was a car belonging to a leasing company in Lothian, Scotland. I contacted Paul Stacey in Edinburgh to make sure he was there, and enquire if there may be Scottish cavers this far south. Paul said there were none to the best of his knowledge of the small caving community in Scotland. Those that were out and about had gone even further north. A police patrol confirmed that the car was still parked at the road side.

Completely separate to any of the above, Simon Jones telephoned me at 11.20 tell me that while passing by he had noticed that there was a caver's car parked at the side of the road at Bedlams Bank, and that he had checked the shaft to see if anyone was down. I thanked Simon for his good observation and informed him of the investigations that were already being made. It is encouraging that others are alert to such things.

The car was traced to being leased to Sevenoaks District Council, and I told the police that it was possible that Peter Kemp, who I had failed to contact, was employed by SDC. The police then established, probably by dragging some poor unfortunate out of bed, that the Escort was Peter Kemp's. I then told the Police that the next thing to do was to see if Ron knew anything about Pete's whereabouts. The Surrey Police then had to contact the Metropolitan Police, who are responsible for patrolling Grenaby Avenue, and ask them to call on Ron Smith. Ron told the police that he thought that Peter had joined Graham Christian's party underground, and was going to come out with them.

At half-past-midnight, on Monday morning, I rang up Caterham police to find out the progress, to be told that "the big button" was just about to be pressed. I requested that the Police Control phone Malcolm Tadd to start the callout. I immediately rang Malcolm to brief him, and told him that I was on my way to Merstham. It was now 00.34hrs.

Malcolm started the callout, phoning Matthew Clark first. Matthew Clark (the other SECRO Controller) picked up the rescue equipment from the Bunker in Reigate on his way to Merstham. On arriving at the incident Matthew found that, in spite of all the fire engines and blue flashing lights, the only people who knew what was going on were apparently not at the roadside, but down by the mine entrance. When he reached the shaft, Matthew was only just in time to question the fire service's tame 'cave rescue expert', Peter Faulding, personally before he and 5 firemen disappeared into the mine to undertake a rough sweep to the east, based on no knowledge of the evolvement of the incident.

At 00.57hrs. Surrey Fire & Rescue Service (not the Police) rang Malcolm to inform him of the incident. Yes, that is a delay of 23 minutes! We do not mind admitting that we are pretty disgusted with this response. I arrived and established contact with Insp. Hurst, the Incident Control Officer. A conference was held in the Police control vehicle between the Police, SECRO Controllers, Fire Officers and Ambulance crew. Insp. Hurst outlined the events leading up to the callout. We (SECRO) proposed to send a team in to search to the west end of the mine, one of our designated search areas. When another one or two SECRO personnel arrived, a second team was going to be sent in to search back from No.9 Entrance towards No.8.

A team of 3 SECRO personnel (Peter Burgess, Dave Bloomfield, Simon Jones), the most effective number in a team for the quickest complete search, was issued with a section of survey for their designated area. We wanted the search to be as fast as possible, with people who know the mine extremely well and are used to fast movement in the restricted headroom. As the SECRO team started for the No.3 Entrance, it was reported that Peter Kemp had been found by the team of firemen and was on his way out. I requested the Police to call Malcolm Tadd and inform him that the incident was over, and to not call any more personnel out. A brief debriefing was held, where Peter Kemp gave his side of the story. He had thus remained in the dark at approximately the last position that I had seen him, on a main route through the 10 mile system. He had been wearing a T-shirt and boiler suit, and had kept warm by exercise and hugging his knees up to his chest. He was cold, but not suffering from hypothermia, was in good spirits and enjoyed a cup of hot chocolate. It was agreed by all services that the incident had progressed well. At 3.00am I finally got to bed.

Peter Kemp has since offered a donation to SECRO and his services (provided that his lamp is proved to be more reliable!!!). There are some things that I have not included in this report, as we like to be fairly discreet.

Graham Christian