Frenchman survives a month in caves, eating only clay and wood

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The Independent Online

A man survived for 35 days lost in a labyrinth of caves in the French Pyrenees, drinking the water dripping from the walls and eating clay and rotten wood.

A man survived for 35 days lost in a labyrinth of caves in the French Pyrenees, drinking the water dripping from the walls and eating clay and rotten wood.

Jean-Luc Josuat-Vergès, 48, owes his life to a strike by French teachers. Three pupils, given an unexpected day off, went to explore the caves near Madiran and found his four-wheel-drive vehicle parked some distance inside the tunnels.

They alerted the gendarmerie who discovered M. Josuat-Vergès, sheltering in a heap of old plastic tarpaulins only 200 metres from the exit.

"It was instinct for survival and strength of character which saved me," he said. "I never panicked, never got depressed or cried. I even sang songs."

M. Josuat-Vergès, a monitor in a centre for the handicapped, said that he entered the caves, once used for growing mushrooms, because he was depressed and needed some time to himself.

He consumed a bottle of whisky and sleeping pills but denies that he intended to commit suicide.

Gendarmes said he told them he drove into the caves, had an accident, then continued on foot. His torch failed and he lost his shoes in the thick mud on the ground. He could no longer find his vehicle or the way out and, after searching for a week, gave up and sheltered in the old tarpaulins.

He said there was no shortage of water dripping into the cave complex and he ate pieces of rotting wood, lumps of clay and sucked pieces of rock for the minerals.

Although he had lost more than 40lb by the time he was found, he was otherwise in good physical and mental condition and released from hospital after a few hours. "I went to the caves because I was a little depressed but as soon as I was trapped and in a survival situation, everything changed," he said. "I was determined to live."

The gendarmerie said they accepted the thrust of his story but they have asked him to return to a police station for further questioning.

M. Josuat-Vergès' wife and his two teenage sons had organised searches for him, fearing that he might have been injured while hiking. His wife even hired a helicopter to fly over the forests and mountains to look for her husband.

Gendarmerie Lieutenant Philippe Lasalle said: "He was thin, bearded and covered in mud when we found him but he replied to our first questions coherently." M. Josuat-Vergès entered the caves on 18 December and was found last Friday. When his rescuers asked what day it was, he was only two days out. On his first night back at home he refused to go to bed, saying he could not bear to be returned to darkness. He sat up in his living-room and waited to watch the dawn coming up.

His wife, Ginou, said: "Now that he's home, there's plenty of DIY for him to catch up with. That's his great passion."

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