Clemson students rescued from flooding cave share first hand accounts

"I've never had to run for my life. I've never seen the coroner welcoming me up from a set of stairs."

Used with permission

HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. (WSPA) – Thousands of miles from his family, 1st year Clemson University PHD student Kien Pham had an experience too dire to share with his parents.

“If I tell them, hey I almost died today – imagine 8 thousand miles away mom and dad, what would they do? They’d feel so helpless,” he said.

Their son came face to face with death itself after a seemingly normal start to his Thursday.

“We got in the cave around 10:00 a.m. The first leg was fine,” he said.

Pham was one of 14 Clemson students inside the Hidden River Cave in Kentucky when the tour took a turn for the worse. 7 News caught with the group on their way home from Kentucky.

“The water was just pouring in pretty much like a garden hose straight into the cave,” said Clemson Junior Riley Blais.

That’s after a small chance for rain turned into a 100 percent chance for danger.

“We had to get lower in elevation which is what made us nervous and the lower we got we felt the wind from the cave system being sucked out,” said Blais.

As the wind went out — the water from a flash flood poured in.

Riley Blais after emerging from flood waters of Hidden River Cave.
Riley Blais after emerging from flood waters of Hidden River Cave.

“We were freaking out at that point but we kept on running and running and towards the entrance of the cave, it was about chest deep water,” said Blais. After his group of four students got out — there were still 10 inside, including Pham.

“Water gushing through who knows how deep and then in the very last leg the water was up to my neck,” said Blais.

Thankfully – rescuers arrived to help just in time.

“Hang on to the rope,” Pham said one rescuer told him. “Because if you don’t – may God help you.”

Through it all — these students say it’s their support for each other that helped the most.

“We were all being motivational,” said Blais. “If somebody got stuck at a spot we all came back.

“That’s really what got us through, said Pham. “It could’ve been so much worse.”

An experience of trials and triumph that’ll have this tigers bonded for life. Both Blais and Pham said they’d go on other cave tours, but will make sure they check the weather themselves first.

This tour was part of a summer class of students studying Hydrogeology. Students volunteered to participate in the tour. None of the students were hurt during the endeavor.

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