HCRU History

Early History and Significant Dates

A Short History of the Cave Rescue Unit
Bill Varnedoe


The Cave Rescue Unit had its roots and beginning with the founding of the Huntsville Grotto in 1955.  At that time there was no distinction between the Grotto and the Rescue Unit.  The Grotto simply functioned as the only knowledgeable group of cavers in the area.

A rescue at Tumbling Rock Cave in 1956 brought into focus the function of “rescue in a cave” as distinct from just “caving’.  That rescue turned out to be a hoax, but nevertheless brought into play all  the functions of a real
emergency.  Bill Varnedoe was President of the Grotto at that time and acted as the Chief of the rescue effort.  The hoax consisted of a report of lost cavers from Nashville in Tumbling Rock Cave.  The several searches took over 24 hours, and taught us many lessons.  We learned from scratch, having had absolutely NO rescue training of any kind.  At that first emergency we learned:

1. Keep a roster of those entering and leaving.
2. Keep some reserves.
3. Call for backup if needed (we called in the Chatanooga Cavers).
4. Good communications with a base is needed.
5. Press relations need to be handled, etc.

Shortly thereafter, there was a sort of “war” between the old Huntsville Rescue Squad and the Madison County Rescue Squad.  (They actually wrecked ambulances, racing to see who could get there first!)  The City & County authorities decided to call a halt to this madness and scheduled a meeting to which the following emergency organizations were invited: the Huntsville Rescue Squad, the Madison County Rescue Squad, the Cave Rescue Unit, the Civil Air Patrol, the River Patrol, the Sheriffs Office & the Huntsville Police Department.  All attended except the Huntsville Rescue Squad.  At that meeting, jurisdictions and missions were defined and agreed to.  Since the Huntsville Rescue Squad was not there, they got written out, and not getting cooperation or calls withered on the vine and ceased to exist.

The Cave Rescue Unit was affiliated with the Civil Defense Office for two reasons:

1. To reduce personal liability
2. To allow administrative leave for emergencies

This latter applied to the U.S. Civil Servants, the majority of the Unit at that time.

Actually, the Cave Rescue Unit continued to have problems with the Madison County Rescue Squad, or rather with its Chief who did not recognize mission boundaries and insisted on being in charge, regardless.  Later, however, the Squad itself, kicked him out and relations with the Madison County Rescue Squad have been excellent ever since.

Bill Varnedoe was the first Chief of the Cave Rescue Unit.  He severed from 1955 to 1960 at which time Jack Allen took over, but Bill took it back again in 1962.  In 1966 Bill gave the reins to Bob Clark.  Bob ran the Unit until his illness forced him to resign and turn it over to Darwin Moss in 1969.  In 1974 Darwin gave it back to Bill Varnedoe again.  Bill turned it over to John Cole in 1977.  John passed it on to on Francis in 1982 when he was transferred out of town and Don has had it until the reorganization in 1991.

Ever since 1956 when the Cave Rescue Unit joined Civil Defense, it has been an independent organization, although the Grotto Treasurer acted as its treasurer (when it had anything to treasure), and its members were exclusively Grotto members.  This kept the Grotto out of liability considerations.

The government of the Unit was dictatorial from the beginning.  The Chief was King.  What he said went, and he appointed his successor, until 1991 when the Unit was Incorporated.

The name of the Cave Rescue Unit has changed from time to time.  Actually, it had no recognized name until the “wars” meeting.  It then became the Cave, Pit and Cliff Rescue Unit.  This was to help define its mission.  Later, about 1976, it became simply the Cave Rescue Unit.  It was a Unit to distinguish it from the Squads, being mission defined rather than jurisdiction (territory) defined.  Also, after the Madison County Rescue Squad settled down, we were a sort of loosely affiliated unit of them.  As they became more proficient in rope work, we backed off of the cliff work, and this was reflected in that name change.

Over the years the Unit has had some exciting and demanding rescues.  Several were in the Natural Well (19??, AL 5), which has included one of only three fatalities, the other two being a result of the Valhalla rock fall (19??, AL 691).  We have evacuated victims with ruptured spleens, broken hips and legs for caves such as the depths of 23 Dollar Pit (19??, AL 996), led lost amateur cavers (spelunkers) out of Anvil Cave (AL 279), and others such as Hughes Cave (AL 157).

Training has greatly advanced since “going caving is training” days.  We have licensed EMTs and Paramedics as members and many have attended the National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC) seminars. 

[While I was Chief, a complete log and a report of every rescue was kept. It was turned over to the new Chief, and I understand that K. Nicholas has it now.  This log will give the dates, above, that are missing, at least while I was Chief. The reports will also give some interesting stories!!

Additional Notes:

The Cave Rescue Unit was incorporated in September, 1991, under the name Huntsville Cave Rescue Unit and adopted By-laws and some Operations Protocol.  This established a more democratic form of government, with elected officers.  However, operations at rescues would still be directed by an Operations Chief, appointed by the officers.  The articles of incorporation listed Tim White as Chairperson, K. Nicholas as Secretary and Sheila Andrews as Treasurer.

- Bill Varnedoe 

The H.C.R.U. became a 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Organization in 19??. 

Ed Nicholas was appointed Operations Chief in 1991, and has served since then.

We’ve been involved in a few more major rescue efforts, such as the fatality in Fern Cave’s Surprise Pit (1997, AL 597) and several rescues involving McBride’s Cave (AL 1345).

In 19??, the Unit purchased a trailer to house and transport its growing cache of equipment 

The H.C.R.U. joined the Alabama Association of Rescue Squads in 2001.

A larger trailer was purchased in 2007, with the help of the Boeing Company.

In 2009, besides holding the yearly Basic Cave Rescue Orientation class in August, we became more involved in providing SRT (Single Rope Technique) training classes.

In 2010, we hope the August class will become the first NFPA-certified Cave Rescue class in the nation.