Exploring the caves around his central Kentucky home was Floyd Collins’ reason for living, and ultimately it became his reason for dying. Floyd explored his first cave when he was six and he became fascinated by the subterreanean world within a world that he discovered. Eventually, he dropped out of school so he could spend more time caving.
A cave explorer becomes a cave owner
When he was in his teens, Floyd saved enough money to buy a parcel of land that had a small cave. He named it Floyd’s cave and started selling stone formations from his cave to souvenir-seeking tourists. Later on, he found another cave on his family’s property. The Collins’ believed that their cave could become a big tourist attraction.
Floyd began exploring what would later be named Sand Cave. He hoped that the Sand Cave would connect with nearby Mammoth Cave which was a popular tourist destination. He made an agreement with three farmers who owned land close to the area’s main highway. If he found a cave on their property that had some potential as a tourist attraction, they would pay to develop the cave. Then Floyd would get a share of the proceeds.
On January 30, 1925, Floyd was exploring Sand Cave. After a few hours, Floyd noticed that his lantern was losing power. While trying to wriggle through a narrow fissure, Floyd tried kicking his way through it. One of his kicks dislodged a rock which pinned down his left ankle. When he continued kicking, a pile of silt and small rocks rained down on him and buried his legs. His left arm was wedged beneath him and his right side was now crammed against the cave’s cold ceiling.
Floyd’s fatal mistake
Floyd probably tried yelling for help and digging his way out before deciding to conserve his energy and his voice. He firmly believed that family and friends would miss him and come looking for him That was his only hope and consolation.
The following morning, a small rescue party found Floyd. They told him that more help was on the way. They also brought him coffee, sandwiches, blankets and quilts. The first rescue party was able to run a lightbulb down to where Floyd was trapped. Now Floyd had a little bit of light and warmth.
A media circus
As news of Floyd’s entrapment spread, a growing pack of reporters swarmed to the rescue site. Soon, the area was inundated with volunteer rescuers, curious spectators and vendors selling sodas, hot dogs, moonshine, balloons and souvenirs. The National Guard was sent to the site to maintain some semblance of order.
Rescue efforts were hampered by the circus-like atmosphere. A steady rain and the unyielding entrapping rocks that buried Floyd added to the difficulties. There was ample manpower, but as the hole deepened it became narrower. Only two workers could dig at one time and the unrelenting rain threatened to cave in the sides of the man-made shaft.
Alternative rescue methods like pneumatic drills, explosives and power tools were sent to the rescue site. But, none of them were deemed feasible. The slow, old-fashioned use of picks and shovels seemed to be the only safe way to rescue Floyd.
Exclusive interview with Floyd wins reporter a Pulitzer Prize
Among the 150 or so reporters gathered at the site, only one was able to go down into the dark, dank hole to interview Floyd. William “Skeets” Miller of the Louisville Courier-Journal visited Floyd seven times in three days. His interviews became front-page news in nearly every major american newspaper. Miller’s riveting account of Floyd’s entrapment won him a Pulitzer Prize.
When Miller asked him if he was afraid, Floyd expressed the faith and courage that had sustained him during his ordeal: “I’ve faced death afore, it don’t frighten me none. But it’s so long — so long … I begged God to send help for me.”
A futile effort
The massive rescue effort ended in failure. On February 4th, the cave passage used to reach Floyd collapsed in two places. Still, the rescuers didn’t give up. They dug a shaft and lateral tunnel to reach Floyd. On February 17th, they found his lifeless body.
On April 26th, Floyd was buried on his family’s homestead. During the burial, the customary act of sprinkling a few clods of dirt on top of the casket wasn’t performed. The minister who conducted the service later explained: “Somehow, it wouldn’t seem appropriate in Floyd’s case.”