George Linnane, who was severely injured and trapped beneath rocks way below ground in darkness, had every reason for believing he wouldn’t make it to the surface alive.

George was an expert caver and had been working his way through Britain’s labyrinthine cave system. He fell to the ground below after the rock floor underneath him collapsed.

He recalls that it was “instantaneous.” “I can still hear the sound of boulders shifting, my legs worling and my arms scrabbling mid-air.

George Linnane, 37, pictured on October 17 2020. On November 6 he and two friends decided to explore the Upper Smithy, a rarely visited part of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu

George Linnane 37 years old, photographed October 17, 2020. Two friends and he decided on the 6th of November to visit Ogof Ffynnon Ddu’s Upper Smithy. 

“And then all of it went black because as I landed more rocks on me and knocked my out.

The start of a 54-hour-long drama ended in Britain’s longest, most comprehensive cave rescue operation. This involved 300 volunteers.

George (38) is speaking today about his battle for survival.

George was lying in blackness, hundreds of feet beneath the Brecon Beacons when he broke four ribs as well as dislocated the collarbone.

His jaw had been broken, several of his teeth had fallen out, and his nose was open.

He suffered a broken right tibia/fibula as well his shoulder. He was bleeding profusely.

George did not know this at the time. He had also injured his spleen. If left untreated it could have led to George’s death.

He needed urgent help, yet to extricate him through the passageways of the underground maze – some tiny, others carrying a surging underground river – would be fraught with danger.

It was November 6 when George, a mechanical engineer from Bristol, and two friends decided to explore the Upper Smithy, a rarely visited part of Ogof Ffynnon Ddu – or Cave of the Black Spring – in the Brecon Beacons.

The network is popular with potholers who are experienced. It has 40 miles worth of passages that run up to 1,000 feet below a limestone mountain.

They had planned to join George and Julie, George’s partner at South Wales Caving Club Headquarters for fireworks.

However, it was just as they began to move back towards the surface that tragedy struck. The floor of Upper Smithy gave way.

George said, “When it touched me, it went.” What appeared to be a solid floor turned out to actually consist of a bunch of rocks stacked above a chasm.

Mark Burkey, his teammate, helped Mark climb down to help him recover consciousness.

Mark remarks that Mark said, “He was able to talk and he could name his names.”

“I saw a lot blood from his face and soft tissue damage. I examined his spine and found that he had a few limb injuries. Then I told him, “George, mate. I have to go.”

George Linnane's cave rescue mission in Ogof Ffynnon Ddu, in Wales pictured last month

Photographed last month: George Linnane’s rescue mission to OgoffynonDdu cave, Wales

Mark made his way towards the door to raise alarm. Melissa Bell, 34-years old, a Stratford charity development manager, sat alone in darkness on a ledge high above.

Only her head torch provided light. She was afraid that, if she moved further, more boulders would fall and possibly crush George.

She says, “I felt extremely helpless.” “There was nothing I could do. He was not visible to me, but it was clear that he was very hurt. But he is so strong that I had no doubt that he would get through this.

George was not quite as certain, though. “I was not sure if it would be possible to survive at that time. While I wanted the fight to end, it was difficult for me to wait.

Sometimes I felt like I was going to die. I needed to accept the situation and then go to bed. Then I would get up and go back to fighting.

“The pain came in waves. There were many missing teeth. It was obvious that my leg had been broken. It was obvious that my leg was broken.

While it might take an experienced caver only an hour to get from the site of the accident to the nearest entrance, Cwm Dwr, with George in this condition it would mean a long flat-out crawl replete with sharp and awkward bends – totally impossible for a casualty lashed to a stretcher.

Rescuers from the South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team pictured in the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave during the rescue in Britain's deepest and most labyrinthine cave system

Rescuers from the South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team pictured in the Ogof Ffynnon Ddu cave during the rescue in Britain’s deepest and most labyrinthine cave system

To survive, he would need rescuers to stabilise him underground, then carry him miles back to daylight the long way round, via the cave’s Top Entrance – a huge undertaking that would involve many underground obstacles.

George believed Mark (52), a Midlands rope access technician, would “go hooning out there at top speed”, but he knew that it would take hours for help to arrive.

His head pointed downhill and his weight was pressing down on his collarbones.

He says, “I knew that I needed to go and it would be terrible,”

“I just clawed my path by my fingertips, with a compound foot fracture and other injuries. I screamed and yelled until the ground sloped upward so that my head was over my feet.

“It must’ve been awful for Mel hearing me shout as if it was death, thirtyft away.

I was able turn my back. That was also very painful – and afterwards I realised that I wasn’t in the recovery position, and that if I threw up or lots of blood started going down my throat, I’d be in big trouble. It was then that I had to wait.

George is the son of a navy officer and was raised in Fareham near Portsmouth. Julie, an accountant chartered from France, is his partner. They have been married for twelve years.

A rescue team from the South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team, pictured last month

Last month, this is the rescue team of South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team.

In 2014, while on holiday in Mexico, they began caving. They went to cenotes underwater and started caving.

George says, “I fell for it.” “I was a cave diver when I saw it, but that also meant becoming a dry caver.

He has been able to make strenuous cave diving trips, including some in the most difficult and longest caves of Britain, over recent years.

It happened around 1pm. Mark emerged finally from the cave in 2.30pm.

A portion of this building houses the South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team Command Centre and Equipment Store.

Mark had the ability to quickly inform rescue coordinaters George’s exact location.

But it still took another two hours for the first responders – rescue teams are composed entirely of caver volunteers – to make their way through the sinuous Cwm Dwr, carrying their bags of first aid gear, to reach George.

He says, “Mel talked with me for approximately three hours about Julie and my life. What I do for work.”

I was only giving single-word responses. I felt semi-conscious at times and wanted to be left alone.

He sensed Flora Dawson’s presence in the darkest hours of winter.

“My mom was a nurse. My gran looked after me while she worked.

Lying in the blackness hundreds of feet below the Brecon Beacons, George (pictured last month) had broken four ribs, dislocated his collarbone and more

George, pictured last month, was lying in blackness, hundreds of feet beneath the Brecon Beacons. He had fractured four ribs and dislocated his collarbone, as well as suffered other injuries.

“I don’t believe in superstition or religion, but somehow she kept me going. At last I heard voices.

“The Advanced First Aids examined me and then the doctor arrived.

“As soon people began to show up, I knew I was in with a chance. I had no negative emotions. It was the only thing I believed in.

George had to be freed from his rock-cleft prison and taken to safety.

They would then have to go into the long underground river tunnel of the cave and transport him more than one mile downstream.

They would then have to transport him by ropes, up 100 ft vertical shafts, and through tunnels.

After this, they would experience another large vertical drop, and many more passages before reaching a narrow entrance on the mountainside known as the Top Entrance to the Cave.

Over the following two days, the operation was massive. It involved members from eight regional cave rescue groups called in to help their Welsh counterparts. There were 254 underground workers working in six-hour shifts including ten doctors.

Other volunteers were also available at the clubhouse to provide support and hot meals.

Cave Link is a great technology, according to Gary Smith, the surface controller. It allows rescuers to send text messages through solid rocks hundreds of feet high, keeping them up-to-date on how far they have come.

Rescuers from the South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team. The 54-hour drama ended with Britain's longest and most extensive cave-rescue operation

Rescuers from South Wales and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team. After 54 hours of drama, the operation ended in Britain’s longest-running and largest cave-rescue operation.

George says that being put on the stretcher was the most painful moment of his life.

“They placed a cast on my leg, and then asked me if they would like to give me some Morphine.

“They administered intramuscular shots to me, but they weren’t strong enough. The pain continued in waves.

I was feeling very cold. My temperature was slowly falling and my vital signs did tank at one stage – my pulse shot up from 70 to 140 and I felt I couldn’t breathe. My condition began to improve and they started me on oxygen.

“My body was receiving what it required.” Finally, they reached a cave known as Big Shacks. The rescuers heated him up with electrical packs.

On Sunday morning, at 4.30 a.m., Dr Brendan Sloan (a doctor and an intensive care consultant at Pinderfield Hospital in Wakefield) administered Tranexamic Acid, which stopped the patient’s internal bleeding.

Additionally, more potent morphine was administered to him. George said that he was woken up by the shock his body experienced. I became conscious, and began to fight more.

George was warming up while other rescuers rigged ropes to help the stretcher get past all the obstacles in the cave.

Knowing that it was difficult to cross the river, they put on a waterproof skirt to enable the stretcher to float. Many of the streams tunnel pools are just below the chest.

George says that George’s feet went down when he reached the bottom of the river. “The water came on top of me. It was like I was saying to them, “Look guys, my body is getting wet”. It was my temperature that worried me.

He kept his spirits high. He was friends with many of his rescuers. “Seeing familiar faces was such an encouragement. Each time I saw friendly faces it was another lift.

He became uncomfortably tied to the stretcher and said, “You’re totally immobile. That is, of course, the point.” It was obvious that I did not have any spinal injuries. However, they could not risk my falling off the stretcher or my legs slipping and hitting against a rock.

Finally, rescuers managed to get him back on the right track, Salubrious Passage. This tunnel is a light and airy one. 

“The previous teams who were in the competition earlier came back for their final leg. It was a seascape of faces all the way to Salubrious. I recognized many faces and many others I did not. “I was smiling, saying hi to everyone and nodding to the others.

Pictured, a group of rescuers from the South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team. The rescuers had to extricate George from the cleft in the rocks where he was trapped, then get him to the much larger dry passages beyond

The rescuers of the South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team were pictured. Rescuers needed to free George from the rock crevice where he was stuck and then transport him to larger, dry passages.

He says that eventually he was able to smell the outside, and the rain, leaves, scent. After passing through the gate, I entered a Land Rover waiting for me.

As he emerged, a honor guard of rescuers stood cheering. “We had done it.”

Two operations were performed at Cardiff hospital to repair his jaw and leg. He has now recovered from a severe infection of his spleen.

Julie states, “I’m glad that he’s still there.” I’m not going tell him to stop caving because that would only make him miserable. “I just want him to wait until he’s ready.”

Meanwhile, George has a message for his rescuers: ‘I will be eternally grateful – and I want everyone to know: the beer is in the pipeline.’