Children find potholer trapped for up to 11 days

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The Independent Online

When 32 Wiltshire schoolchildren climbed into the Mendip Hills on Monday night they hoped to hear the haunting sound of owls. Instead they heard cries for help from Matthew Head, trapped at the bottom of a disused mineshaft for up to 11 days.

When 32 Wiltshire schoolchildren climbed into the Mendip Hills on Monday night they hoped to hear the haunting sound of owls. Instead they heard cries for help from Matthew Head, trapped at the bottom of a disused mineshaft for up to 11 days.

The 6ft 3in potholer was recovering in hospital yesterday after a combination of fortune and tenacity allowed him to cheat death in a dank cavity 40ft beneath the Somerset countryside.

The primary school children found the geology graduate after climbing to the isolated Stainsbury Shaft, near Cheddar, on a trek with four adult helpers. The group from Walwayne Court School in Trowbridge had paused in silence shortly after 11pm beside the fenced-off lead mine to listen to the nocturnal activities of the local wildlife. Instead, it was a human voice that loomed from the depths after Mr Head, 26, became aware of the activity above.

The schoolchildren, who were on a field trip at a nearby activity centre, were among the first walkers at the desolate spot after foot-and-mouth restrictions imposed since March were recently lifted. One of those who heard the potholer's cries, Kezia Gorman, 10, said: "We were being quite quiet listening for owls. We were looking at the Stainsbury Shaft and we heard a voice coming out of it. It said, 'Can you get some help down here?' It was all very scary but also very exciting."

Within an hour, eight members of the Mendip Cave Rescue Team had arrived to begin the process of hauling to the surface a cold, damp Mr Head, who was suffering from dehydration, shock and bruising. It is thought the potholer, described by his rescuers as being in "remarkably good condition" despite his ordeal, initially survived by drinking rainwater from puddles. Constable Peter Ford, a Wiltshire police officer who was accompanying the children, said: "He wanted a drink more than anything else. I kept talking to him but he always came back to drink."

Wardens on the Blackmoor nature reserve, where the 200-year-old working mine sits next to an abandoned property, said Mr Head had been "extremely lucky". No other parties of trekkers had been expected to pass near the shaft for another week.

Dr Andrew Newton, who treated the potholer at the bottom of the hole, said: "He was lying folded in against some rocks, under an overhang. He was able to tell us he had fallen and that he had been there for a significant period of time. I think it's reasonable to suggest that another 48 hours and he could well have been dead."

But as Mr Head's parents and sister comforted him at Frenchay Hospital in Bristol, mystery surrounded the incident. Somerset and Avon Police confirmed Mr Head had been suffering depression when he was reported missing from his home in Midsomer Norton, near Radstock, Somerset, on 3 May. Police had released a description and alerted local farmers but were prevented from mounting a full search of the Mendip Hills by foot-and-mouth restrictions.

When he was found, Mr Head was in the same clothes he had been wearing when he left home. To enter the shaft site, he would have had to climb over a 4ft fence that surrounds it. Police sources said it was "unlikely" his disappearance was an elaborate suicide attempt. But Brian Prewer, one of the cave rescue team, said: "We think he probably abseiled down a double rope and pulled the rope down after him. Why he did that I don't know; perhaps we will never know."

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