Rescuers hoisted a seriously injured German caver to safety yesterday, ending an 11-day ordeal trapped in Germany's deepest and longest cave after a dramatic recovery operation.
A multi-national team of hundreds of emergency personnel had battled around the clock in a complex and costly operation to rescue the stricken man.
"The victim has been brought to the surface and is receiving emergency medical care," a mountain rescue official said after the team reached the mouth of the cave in the Bavarian Alps, where a helicopter was waiting to take him to hospital.
Explorer Johann Westhauser, 52, suffered serious head injuries in an accident about 1,000 metres below ground in the labyrinth-like Riesending cave complex on June 8.
"It was one of the most difficult rescue operations in the history of the mountain rescue service," said Klemens Reindl, who runs the mountain rescue service and supervised the operation.
"Especially, the international character of the mission was remarkable," he said in a statement, adding that 728 people from five countries took part.
Rescuers placed Westhauser on a fibreglass stretcher and negotiated a treacherous network of tunnels and chambers, underground lakes and ice-cold waterfalls.
The rescue operation involved rest periods in five bivouac stops, followed by a major final hoist up a 180m vertical shaft near the entrance to the cave.
The rescue effort, high in the mountains near the Austrian border, has involved professional cavers, medical personnel and helicopter crews, from Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and Croatia.
German Red Cross president Rudolf Seiters praised the effort, saying "the conditions under which the helpers had to rescue the seriously injured from the more than 1,000 metres deep cave were extremely difficult".
"The fact that they still managed is a great success for the volunteer rescue workers."
Veteran caver Westhauser was exploring the cave system with two others when he suffered head and chest injuries in the rock fall. One of his companions made the more than 10-hour trip back to the surface to raise the alarm while the other person stayed behind.
His employer, the Technology Institute of Karlsruhe, where Westhauser works in the applied physics department, expressed relief.
"Our thanks goes to the Bavaria mountain rescue service and the many helpers at the scene who brought the difficult rescue with care and great personal commitment to a happy end," the institute's Elke Luise Barnstedt said in a statement.
The Riesending cave, north of the city of Berchtesgaden, was only discovered in the mid-1990s and was not explored and mapped until 2002.