© 2005 by John and Susy Pint, Updated September, 2013


A serious accident is frightening enough in itself, but if it takes place in the middle of nowhere, it suddenly becomes a thousand times more serious. This lesson hit us hard last week when we nearly lost one of our colleagues, Saeed Amoudi, in the barren wastes of Harrat Khaybar lava field.

It all began when Jamal Shawali, the black-bearded head of the Medina Earthquake Monitoring Station, sent us a CD full of cave pictures he had taken somewhere in Harrat Khaybar. Since we are already working on a report on Khaybar as the most promising cave area in Saudi Arabia, we jumped at the chance to see Jamal’s caves and on February 24, 2003, drove off to Medina.


Jamal invited us to spend the night at the SGS camp, but we declined because of the health risk posed by small fibers of rock wool, which blow all around the area...

Of course, when you breathe this stuff in, it stays in your lungs for the rest of your life, like asbestos !

 “We prefer to camp under the stars,” we said and off we drove to the cave, which Jamal said was only seventy-two kms away. Well, 150 kms later, we found ourselves winding our way through desolate lava beds in total darkness, wondering how Jamal was going to find this cave without driving right into it.

At last, the meandering finished and we were standing at the edge of a black hole about eight meters in diameter which you could definitely fall into with no problem. This was Um Qaradi cave, a place we are likely never to forget...

Jamal and one of the two vertical entrances by daylight. 

Picture courtesy of Jamal Shawali

“Didn’t you say it was 72 kms away, Jamal?”

“Yes, of course… by GPS,” he replied with a twinkle in his eye, proof of how quickly we are all acquiring “satellite vision.”

The walk-in entrance to the cave.                                                



Picture courtesy of Mahmoud Alshanti

A brisk wind was blowing and it was getting cold. Jamal showed us two more entrances to the cave, one of which was horizontal. Soon we were carrying our boxes, bundles and bags down into a flat spot some twenty meters inside the cave, which, of course, was pleasantly warm.

Tea time inside the cave...                                                                            




...And then, it's show time as Jamal reveals more cave pictures on his hardy, cave-proof laptop. 




A quick walk showed us the cave was only a hundred or so meters long and about 14 meters wide at most points. It was a lava tube, but instead of exhibiting the usual smooth surface, the walls and ceiling looked chunky and deteriorated. No lava stalactites were to be seen anywhere and it could be that the entire inner layer of the original tube had long ago spalled off.

The typical wide arch of a lava tube.                                           




Picture courtesy of Jamal Shawali


Detail of the ceiling and side wall: thin on top and not exactly smooth.



The distance from ceiling to floor was only about four meters, suggesting that we were standing on many meters of accumulated sediment. Digging deep might reveal lava levees and fallen bits of the original ceiling, not to mention archeological finds and a few million years of pollen deposits.


Floor of the cave seen from above. Note the healthy plant life.       




Picture courtesy of Jamal Shawali


...Under one of the two ceiling collapses, someone had planted two palm trees. At the far end of the cave, the floor is moist and nearly reaches the ceiling. Jamal said the cave continues beyond this point and we planned to check it out the next morning, but that was not meant to be..





That night, few of us slept peacefully. I had nothing but nightmares and in her dreams, Susy saw pale, sober-faced individuals telling us over and over to get out of the place.

By the light of the next morning, we could see that the area just outside the cave’s horizontal entrance had once been covered with buildings. The outlines of ancient walls are clearly marked by blocks of basalt.

As we were relaxing after breakfast and speculating over the reasons why none of us felt comfortable in this cave, Saeed Amoudi went out to get a few helmets in preparation for surveying the cave. “They’re in the metal box on top of my car,” I told him...



This picture was taken. only moments before the accident. 


A few moments later, we heard a distant cry. I went out of the cave to investigate and saw Saeed lying on the lava just near my vehicle. I called to him and when there was no response, I shouted to the others: “I think we have a problem!” ...

Picture courtesy of Mahmoud Al-Shanti

When I reached Saeed and saw his face covered with blood and his leg twisted unnaturally, and blood spattered everywhere around him, my heart nearly stopped, because I had imagined he had simply slipped and fallen while walking. But apparently he had tumbled from a standing position on the roof rack, perhaps pushed by a sudden gust of wind. It was a long distance to fall, and all the worst to land on rough, volcanic rocks.

This situation looked deadly serious. Saeed was alive, thank God, but barely conscious and obviously in deep shock. By then everyone was around him and, hands trembling, we began to apply the various procedures we had been taught during our First Aid and Cave Rescue course in Lebanon. It was much harder to do those things under the stress of a real accident, of course, but I was especially struck how very difficult it was to THINK clearly. Obviously it is better to have things like splints, cloth triangles, etc. ready for use, avoiding the need for improvisation, which doesn’t come easy under stress.

We applied compresses to Saeed’s deep head and leg wounds and felt for broken bones. Although we could feel none, his cries of anguish every time we touched his leg, made us suspect a fracture at least, so I looked around frantically for something that could serve as a splint and ended up using a rolled magazine....

One of the extra helmets Saeed was bringing for our guests -suddenly spattered with his blood. 


...Next we covered Saeed with blankets and used a tarp to make a sort of tent that would shield him from the wind, which blows so relentlessly across these flat lava fields. Here Susy took over, talking to Saeed and encouraging him. “His hands were icy at the beginning,” she recalls, “but after they built the tent, he slowly warmed up.”...

Susy keeping vigil... 

At this point, we realized how foolish we were not to have bought a speleo rescue stretcher or at least built a simple one of plywood. We had no safe way to move him, for example, to the inside of a Land Cruiser. However, the serious possibility of internal injuries and broken bones told us to forget about transporting Saeed over those rocky tracks. “Jamal has friends at the Civil Defense in Medina,” said Mahmoud. “We’re going to call for a helicopter.”


...Well, at least for this we were well equipped. We had a satellite telephone with us – exactly for emergencies like this one – and we could give them the exact GPS coordinates, without which they could never have found us in that endless lava rubble...

Mahmoud calling for help. 


...Less than 45 minutes later, we could hear the chopper approaching, a big twin-engine Kawasaki, and in nothing flat Saeed, accompanied by Mahmoud and Jamal, was on his way to Medina’s King Fahad hospital...

Flagging down the helicopter. 


The helicopter lands...                                                                                






Picture courtesy of Mahmoud Al-Shanti


The Civil Defense Unit in action...                                                        





A race against time.                                                                 



The rest of us packed up and returned to the SGS earthquake camp. After a few hours, we were relieved to learn that Saeed had no broken bones (Mahmoud insisted on x-rays of every inch of his body) and his head and leg wounds were being stitched up. Later, in Jeddah, CAT scans would verify he had no internal injuries. That afternoon, Saeed was released from the hospital. He had stitches on his face in two locations and still couldn’t walk on his leg despite pain-killers. Apparently the wound had gone all the way to the bone. But he was alive and even joking about not missing the next cave trip.

We spent the night at the SGS Medina camp, despite the certainty of inhaling rock-wool dust and enjoyed countless cups of tea thanks to Jamal’s attentive assistant, Naheel. On one occasion, Susy helped out by pouring the tea for me. I told her, in Spanish, to give me only “un poquito” as I felt I was already swimming in tea. But Naheel noticed the half-empty cup and then carefully explained to Susy how to do it right and I got my full portion after all.

The following morning we drove back to Jeddah, all of us touched by this near tragedy and resolved to be better prepared the next time.

And now, I want to express the heartfelt thanks of all of us, especially Saeed, to our First Aid instructor, Joe Zaidan of the Spéléo-Club du Liban. A big SHUKRAN to you, Joe!


John Pint