by Erwin Neumaier
Line Producer, Project Naica, C/Producciones (Mexico)
Naica is a place that commands respect. You might not feel it at first, but at some point, probably sooner rather than later, the cave will make it clear, especially if you’ve been there before and are feeling overconfident. This happened to part of the film crew at one point, and it’s only natural. You think it’s a piece of cake because you already know the conditions, and you think you can go further. How far is too far? As I learned in Naica, the distance between safe and fatal is incredibly small.
On the second day of shooting in Los Cristales cave, we prepared something we named the “astronomical device”, which is basically a long stick with a camera and LED lights attached to one end, so it can maneuver through the small openings between the crystals. With it, we wanted to film and light areas that, we thought, would lead us to another large gallery. Mario Corsalini, a caver, Tomas, our first camera assistant, and I were at the entrance of the cave, preparing the instrument. The heat and humidity were intense, perhaps the most intense we had ever felt in the cave. The objective of our mission was to reach the end of the crevasse and introduce the device to look around and see what else was behind there. The sweat and the heat envelope you the moment you enter the cave, so we were preparing as fast as we could. Gary Lang, the Canadian Director, came into the cave and was surprised that we’re still at the entrance and not on our way to the crevasse. He told us in very urgent terms that time was crucial. Mario, not being a cameraman, felt he needed as much training as possible. Even though we have experienced this before, the conditions in the cave, has an effect on tempers. Mario’s response to Gary’s urgency was pretty blunt. An argument ensued, and the tension was mounting. Finally, Gary had to calm everyone down and, after reconsidering Mario’s situation on camera, gave us new instructions on the steps to follow for the mission. We made our way to the crevasse through the short but difficult route, climbing on crystals while carrying the camera, device, ice vests and respirators. That route forces us to bridge a distance of about two meters between two crystals, hanging on the highest part of the cave, while carrying all the equipment: a very dangerous stunt. We got there in about ten minutes and sat to wait for the film crew, which arrived about five minutes later. The space in the crevasse is very tight, so Gary asked me to step out of the cave. I hesitated, since I was the security person in charge of getting Mario out in case he felt too tired. At that point I felt that about 25 minutes had passed since Mario had entered the cave, and I was OK to exit the cave quite fast since I had left my respiration equipment there as a backup; my mobility was greatly improved.
Back in Mission Control, they were filming the voice orders given over the walkie-talkie to Mario, who was collecting images with the device. But there was a mix-up with the time-count, and through the radio someone said to Mario that he had been inside for 35 minutes and needed to leave now. There was no response. I get worried and asked Javier, the first Assistant Director, to go in the cave and bring everyone out. He tried to communicate with them, but according to the Mission control time-count it had been 40 minutes now, and they would need at least 10 more minutes to get out. I didn’t see anyone come out, so I went back in the cave and yelled that they all needed to leave now. I was responsible for this shooting, and I couldn’t allow anything bad to happen to this team. I didn’t know what was happening, I didn’t have the energy to climb back up and look for them, so I yelled again. Suddenly, Mario appeared through the difficult route. I thought he had chosen this route because he was very tired and, although it’s more dangerous, it is shorter. It was obvious that he was not well: his movements were slow and, when he stopped and took off his mask, his face did not look right. He was at the limit. I saw him take a wrong turn, which is actually pretty common even if you have been in the cave multiple times; once you’re very tired, everything looks the same and you can get easily confused. This happened to Mario, who made a turn up instead of towards the entrance. Once he reached the top, I saw he realized his mistake, but then I saw him doubt between turning back and jumping down. My heart stopped for a second and I yelled, “Mario, don’t jump!” Beto, our best staff, and his assistant Xagui, came into the cave at that second and I asked them to go and get him. At times like those, you need to hear that you are close to the exit, so we all talked to Mario non-stop while they guided him out of the cave. He was absolutely exhausted.
The only thing I could think of was getting everyone out of the cave and reassessing the security needs. My voice and my whole body were trembling at how close we had come to an accident. I called Denis, the Canadian Line Producer, Gary, and Javier, and we all tried to explain what had happened. Gary never heard the order to leave through the walkie-talkie, nor Javier’s yelling, and when he saw Mario was too tired he told him to get out of the cave, having finished his part of the mission. The images were very encouraging, the cave seemed to go on, but we needed more time and human resources to explore. The confusion over the radio about the time-count could not happen again; someone had over counted by almost ten minutes in Mission Control, which had caused me to panic without reason. This experience allowed us to establish safer work methods and forced us to be more organized, even with the great exhaustion that fell over the crew as the days went by. No matter, we were happy to have gotten that far, and the days to come would be filled with new challenges and surprises.
Video Preview: “Barely Escaping with Your Life” — In 2006, one explorer was nearly killed by the heat when attempting to cross to the back of the cafe.
Don’t miss “Into the Lost Crystal Caves” premiering Sunday, October 10th at 8P et/pt.