A 28-year-old California man is listed in stable condition at the Flagstaff Medical Center following an all-night rescue in the bitter cold at Meteor Crater east of Flagstaff.
The man says he illegally hiked to the bottom of the crater and jumped down a 100 foot mine shaft to "appease the gods," according to the Coconino County Sheriff's Office.
An employee at the privately owned meteor impact site called the Sheriff's office at about 4 p.m on Thursday when the employee spotted the man hiking to the bottom of the 600 foot deep crater. The employee then watched through binoculars as the man jumped feet first down a mine shaft, officials said.
Authorities say that if it weren’t for the attentive employee, the man would have likley died and, possibly, not been discovered for some time.
"Certainly we would have preferred to do this in the daylight, but we didn't think he would survive that long," said Coconino County Sheriff's Office spokesperson Gerry Blair. "So, once again, our rescuers put themselves in harm’s way to help their fellow man."
A rescue team from the Coconino County Sheriff's Office was flown into the crater with assistance from the Guardian Medical Transport helicopter, which volunteered its time when other air support wasn't available.
But as the winter conditions worsened and night settled in, the helicopter was forced to return to Flagstaff. That left the four-person technical rescue team from the Flagstaff Fire Department without a ride.
Flagstaff Fire Department Captain Jeff Bierer says it was a long and exhausting haul to the bottom of the crater for him and his men, who had to carry all their gear with them.
The team consisted of more than 30 volunteer and paid personnel from Search and Rescue, the Flagstaff Fire Department, Guardian Medical, as well as two Maricopa Count Sheriff's Office deputies and eight members of the agency's Technical Mine Rescue Team.
Rescuers lowered a radio down the mine shaft to the man and learned he was suffering from a broken arm and leg and was going in and out of consciousness. The man was extremely hypothermic and the team also provided him with blankets, warm clothes, food and water.
Temperatures overnight with the wind chill dropped to 0 degrees in the area, with wind gusts as high as 70 mph. Blair says that veteran northern Arizona deputies claimed it was the coldest they had ever been.
"We let him know we weren't going anywhere until we got him out of there," Blair said. "This rescue took place under the worst conditions."
Because the surrounding rocky material was too sandy and soft for anchors, the team sent someone back into town for sandwiches and equipment needed to plant posts they could use to rappel down the shaft on ropes.
Two members of the Flagstaff Fire Department, Engineer Roy Lippman and Firefighter Jess Maier, were then lowered into the mine shaft. The firefighters spent an hour in the mineshaft stabilizing the victim and getting him ready to be raised back up into the crater.
Bierer says the pair was sent because of their extensive experience as technical rescuers and avid rock climbers. They struggled to breathe because of the dirt in the confines of the mineshaft and material was constantly falling from the unstable edges.
The team from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office arrived at about
3:30 a.m., just as the man was raised to the crater floor. Beirer says the additional manpower was crucial to transporting the victim, who weighed over 200 pounds, to the visitors center on the edge of the crater more than a mile away.
Once freed from the mineshaft, rescuers covered the man in cold weather sleeping bags and worked to combat his hypothermia. The large group took turns over a two 1/2- hour period to carry the man up the 600-foot incline to the crater rim and then another mile to the visitors' center so he could be taken to the hospital.
"Bringing this individual up out of the crater was nothing short of a feat of strength," said Beirer.
The fire captain said the experience was a once-in-a-career type of moment for all of the veteran rescuers involved.
"Once the rescue was done and the patient was stabilized, we shut off all the lights and looked around and you're in the middle of a dark bowl," he said. "It's black all around you and it just opens up to a star-filled sky. We chalked it up to something that would probably be pretty rare that we'd ever repeat in our careers.
Deputies haven't throughly interviewed the victim yet, but he reportedly claimed he jumped into the mine shaft to "appease the gods."
Investigators believe the Union City, Calif., man is a semi-truck driver and say his 18-wheeler was discovered in the Meteor Crater parking lot.
Access to the crater beyond the visitors' center is tightly controlled because the site is still an active research laboratory, said Brad Andes, president of Meteor Crater operations.
Andes said the man was acting erratically on the crater floor, climbing on things and removing posts, for about an hour before he jumped. A deputy was already on scene when the man made it to the mineshaft after climbing a 7 foot tall chainlink fence topped with three strands of barbed wire.
Meteor Crater has been used as a site to train astronauts and been involved regularly in astronomical research. When the Spirit and Opportunity Mars Rovers landed on the Red Planet in 2004, NASA needed a site to confirm discoveries they were making in an impact crater.
They came to Meteor Crater to test those hypothesis, Andes said.
"The Search and Rescue team and the Flagstaff Fire Department did an awesome job with the site last night," Andes said. "That shaft is very challenging to go down into because it's very unstable. They did their job and impacted the site very little."
He added that it's rare for people to hike down to the bottom of the crater, but each time they do, they jeopardize future research.
Meteor Crater was initially established as a mining site based on early, and incorrect, scientific belief that a large meteorite – possibly the size of the crater itself – was likely waiting under the surface of the crater, according to Andes.
“Back then absolutely nothing was known about the science of impacting,” Andes said. “Mr. Barringer spent a great deal of his family fortune and a great deal of the 27 next years trying to find a massive meteor that didn't really exist.”
The mineshaft the man jumped into was about 12 feet wide and 100 feet deep and was dug by hand sometime between 1905 and 1910. They abandoned digging by hand when they hit water and quicksand.
In the 1920s, Daniel Barringer invested his fortune and the fortunes of others drilling into the crater floor in a last ditch effort to find valuable minerals. He thought that he'd find a three-quarter of a mile wide chunk of metal that consisted of 97 percent iron and 3 percent nickel.
Drilling was abandoned in 1929 when an astronomer showed that a meteor would only have to be some 80 feet wide to produce the crater. The astronomer also demonstrated that most of the meteorite would have been vaporized from the energy of the impact.
Barringer died from a heart attack within one week of the astronomer's final report. Andes said he died a frustrated man because he had been unable to persuade the scientific community that the crater was indeed caused by a spacerock. Instead, it was thought to have formed volcanically, similar to the many other volcanic craters across northern Arizona.
However, Andes said that Barringer was eventually validated when Eugene Shoemaker, who founded the U.S. Geological Survey Astrogeology branch in Flagstaff, was able to scientifically demonstrate its true origins. Meteor Crater became the first known impact site on Earth.
Editor's note: This story has been updated from its original version.