- Historic Sites
THE DEATH AND TRANSFIGURATION OF FLOYD COLLINS
October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
The more people admired Skeets, the more Johnny Gerald resented him. Johnny chased him away on Wednesday morning and led ten men into the hole. He chipped at the boulder that held Floyd’s foot until Floyd told him he was free. The crew headed back to get a piece of canvas to drag him out. They were fifty feet from him when the tunnel collapsed. Five days of digging had loosened the roof and weakened the walls. The heat of the work had thawed the frozen mud that had helped hold the rock in place. Gerald broke through again twelve hours later. Floyd’s foot was still caught. It had never been freed. He’d been delirious. He was dying of pneumonia. A young miner from Central City named Maddox gave him the last food he ever ate. He mumbled and whispered: “Maddox, get me out … why don’t you take me out … kiss me good-bye, I’m going.” Maddox saw purple circles around his eyes and two front teeth made of gold. He kissed him good-bye.
The experts came to save Floyd the next day. Kentucky Governor Fields had ordered two detachments of soldiers under the command of Adjutant General Denhart to bring order to Cave City; he had asked T. J. Carmichael, a superintendent of Kentucky Rock Asphalt and a member of the State Geological Survey, to direct rescue operations; and he had requested W. D. Funkhouser, a University of Kentucky professor of anthropology and zoology, who had conducted archaeological surveys of the area, to offer his advice. The Louisville Gas and Electric Company sent a geologist who had made surveys of the area for the company; and Mrs. Emma Blaine, formerly Miss McCormick of International Harvester of Chicago, dispatched Dr. William Hazlitt, a prominent surgeon, to cut off Floyd’s leg. Newspapers from New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City, Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Indianapolis, Atlanta, New Orleans, and Dallas sent their reporters. The Red Cross set up a complete field hospital on one of the slopes overlooking the camp, and the soldiers strung barbed wire in a perimeter fifty yards beyond the bluffs that surrounded the rock overhang.
Outside the wire, venders sold hot dogs, sandwiches, and coffee to tourists who had begun to arrive from Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, and Tennessee and from Georgia, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. Inside the wire the experts agreed that the tunnel had become too dangerous and that the safest way to rescue Floyd was to dig a shaft until it reached the boulder that pinned him. None of them believed that they’d find him alive, and most of them thought he was dead already. The newspapers explained it this way: Homer and Marshall had passed out; Lee was an old wreck; Johnny Gerald had threatened a fireman and chased away a young hero. The only thing Fïoyd’s friends and relatives had managed to do was start arguments with nice people and bring the roof down on their own heads. They were amateurs who had made fatal mistakes. The experts would solve everything. The same military discipline and professional organization that had won the First War would prove its worth by saving a corpse.
Carmichael of the Kentucky Rock Asphalt Company organized three hundred volunteers into three shifts. Some of them worked for the same company he did, others worked for the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, some were out-of-work miners from the eastern Kentucky coalfields, and others were striking miners from Muhlenberg County in the western fields. The miners said that Floyd would be squeezed to death before they got near him. The squeeze, they said, always happened when the walls of a mine tunnel became weak and hydraulic pressure pushed the floor up to the ceiling. They estimated the tunnel was closing at the rate of a quarter of an inch an hour. In Boston two Harvard geologists denied such a thing could ever happen in a limestone region.
The experts at the cave began to monitor Floyd’s condition electrically. They connected a “radio detector” to the light bulb around his neck. They heard a grating noise every twenty seconds. Dr. Hazlitt, the surgeon from Chicago, said it meant that Floyd was gasping for breath. A radio station in Chicago strapped a glowing bulb to the chest of a volunteer and then connected it to amplifiers. No one could hear a thing. The engineers hauled two ten-thousand-dollar steam shovels down the bluffs to the cave, but Dr. Hazlitt discovered that engine exhaust fumes were being drawn into the tunnel. Johnny Gerald made a rude remark about the experts’ shaft, and the Army threw him out. Mr. Carmichael said it might cost a hundred thousand dollars to dig Floyd up. Three thousand people stood outside the wire and watched. They were too far away to see anything.