Friendship runs deep – “We just wanted to bring our friends back”

Diving into the Unknown is the just released movie by Juan Reina that’s more than just a dramatic tale about the daring recovery of two bodies; it’s a story about unconditional friendship, teamwork and the deep moral questions surrounding choices we make about risk.

The documentary includes remarkable footage from the actual accident and an astonishing recovery mission in an intimate look into the life and death decisions involved in cave diving. The film asks of us what we might do to recover the body of a friend, and it entreats us to consider the collateral damage our choices have on our wider community.

Deep caves have often been referred to as the ‘Mount Everests of diving’, because of the technical training and skills required, and their powerful allure. Over 280 people have died attempting to conquer Mount Everest and over 200 bodies remain on the mountain, frozen in time, knees hugged for warmth or sprawled grotesquely after a fall.

But the warrior’s ethos may not always hold true. ‘Leave no man behind’ has its limits. Recovering lifeless remains are not always worth the risk of death to others. Despite the risk, the survivors of this cave dive went back to complete one of the most secretive underwater body recoveries in history. There was no question they would not return to recover the remains of their two friends.

Yet the veteran British cave dive Rick Stanton said on a television interview, “They’ve made a film and they all come out as heroes, but these two people should never have died in the first place.”

Veterans of high peaks and deep caves offer a similar viewpoint. In 2004, technical rebreather diver Dave Shaw perished while attempting to recover the long lost remains of Deon Dreher from South Africa’s Bushmansgat Cave. In 2012, Mississippibased diver Larry Higginbotham ran out of gas when he became wedged in a cave while searching for the body of Ben McDaniel in Vortex Springs.

Other searches for lost cave divers have simply been abandoned. For 30 years the decomposed body of a diver known as ‘Uncle Charlie’ has resided in an Andros Island cave, his skeletal wet suit and gear in clear view of any visiting cave diver. The searches for Frank Martz in the Bahamas and Dean Valentine in Florida’s Spring Bayou were simply abandoned. Mystery Sink in Florida is now closed to cave diving as a gesture of respect to the families of two deceased men entombed there.

Diving into the Unknown was never intended to be a documentary about a cave diving accident. Developed by Finnish authors Janne Suhonen and Antti Apunen, the intention was to shoot a world record cave diving distance attempt by a team of Finnish divers. But while training for that dive, the terrible accident claimed two of their team.

The tragedy unfolded as an ill-planned effort to make a 1980m long traverse from a small pond known as Plura, to another cave exit called Steinugleflaget, where a vaulted ceiling rises 90m overhead to where daylight flickers through a crack in a hillside.

The underwater traverse, located in Norway, is a mile and a quarter long and 426 feet deep. The water is ice-cold, between 36 and 39 degrees Fahrenheit (2°-4°c)

The underwater traverse, located in Norway, is a mile and a quarter long and 426 feet deep.
The water is ice-cold, between 36 and 39 degrees Fahrenheit (2°-4°c)

The challenge of the dive required swimming to a depth of 130m and squeezing through a gap before ascending to the surface.

Obviously it would require long decompression in near freezing water. And if one of the party failed to negotiate a restrictive passage those following would be blocked.

Standard planning procedure for a cave traverse like this entails first completing a series of dives, from one side then the other, to reconnoitre and establish familiarity, set abort limits and place emergency gas supplies. Further dives are often required to place safety equipment and set temporary lines. A dive of this magnitude also demands safety divers and surface support personnel to be on hand.

“If we had done a practice run then things would have been different. It was totally our own fault”, said Patrik Gronqvist. Gronqvist is a highly accomplished technical diver, and is regular job is as a firefighter. He admits the last time, “I didn’t know whether to come back up or stay down there”.

On the fateful morning, Gronqvist, one of those who had discovered the passage between the caves, descended with good friend Jari Huotarinen through a hole cut in the ice. Thirty minutes later he successfully passed through a restriction in the passage but on looked back he saw his buddy signalling with his light. Huotarinen was stuck. He was panicking. Then he became trapped further, entangled in his scooter leash. Gronqvist went back to help, but could only watch, helpless, as his friend drowned desperately trying to switch off his rebreather and bail out to open circuit gas. To survive Gronqvist had to continue the dive plan, leaving Huotarinen, and heading to the only way out, the Steinugleflaget exit.

Two hours later and completely unaware of the tragedy, Vesa Rantanen, Jari Uusimaki, and Kai Kankanen descended from the Plura pond intending also to make the traverse to Steinugleflaget. The team had had no indication of anything amiss until they got to the point where Huotarinen’s lifeless body blocked the passage.

Lead diver, Vesa Rantanen, shocked, realised he had two options: attempt to pass the body, which was the shortest route to an exit, or backtrack through the deepest section of the cave. If he chose to go back he knew he would need much longer decompression times, and he was unsure if he had enough gas to survive. Instead he decided to push on, struggling to squeeze between Jari Huotarinen’s corpse and the cold wall of the restriction.

The effort added more than 15 minutes to his bottom time. He aborted his decompression 80 minutes early and soon began to suffer the decompression illness that has left him with spinal cord damage.

Meanwhile remaining team members, Jari Uusimaki and Kai Kankanen, were unable to free the body or get past it. Kankanen opted to retrace the swim back to Plura completing a remarkable 10 hour dive, unsure in the confusion whether or not he was the only survivor. He recalls little of what happened.

From the time he came on Huotarinen’s body at the restriction, Kankanen says his only focus was to return to his family. He reasoned he had no other option but to go back. Ahead there may have been other blockages. He surfaced not knowing that his team mate Jari Uusimaki had also drowned somewhere deep in the Plura system.

Straight after the two fatalities local authorities prohibited further access to the cave. But just over a month later a team of divers – 17 Finns and 10 Norwegians – arrived covertly in trucks, cars, sleds and even snow machines, lugging a tonne of gear. This time they planned for every eventuality.

At both ends of the traverse two teams of support divers would work at shallower levels. Over a carefully planned series of dives team leader Sami Paakkarinen, along with survivors Patrik Gronqvist and Kai Kankanen, would recover the bodies of their comrades from the deepest point of the cave. The third survivor, Vesa Rantanen, still in recovery, would help coordinate their efforts from the surface.

Diving into the Unknown documents the details of the accident and the recovery effort as they unfold. During the recovery we see Kai Kankanen is overwhelmed by flashbacks, and aborts. When he turned back at 90m I breathed a sigh of relief. When Gronqvist and Paakarinen approached the body of their dead colleague, he appeared as they had left him. I was amazed at the footage.

Director Juan Reina handles the story with grace. Finns are known for the character trait called sisu, or grit in the face of adversity. Reina deftly breaks through this outer Scandinavian resolve to reveal the sensitivity and intense friendship among the surviving group.

Ultimately, the movie is about love and the lengths one will go to for a brother. But why go to such risky lengths to bring the victims’ bodies home? Perhaps for the survivors it was too painful to consider mourning forever if they were never recovered. Perhaps, making the recovery effort, successful or not, would help lay to rest the demons haunting the souls of the survivors. Now the mention of Jari Huotarinen and Jari Uusimaki are preserved in the survivors’ memories as strong, young men, and in this way the film honours their remarkable lives, rather than keeping their memories in a boundless and unimaginable grave.

As divers we can certainly relate to the humanity of this story, and yet we cannot ignore the psychological costs. Diving into the Unknown reminds us that the choices about the risks we take are not just about us, but about the people we might leave behind.

Jill Heinerth, a Canadian, is herself a highly experienced cave diver.