Skip to main content

“it Was My First Trip Into A Cave…”

July 2024
3min read

William Burke “Skeets” Miller, the Louisville Courier-Journal reporter who interviewed the trapped Collins and helped with the rescue operations, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the tragedy. A jew years ago Miller, who is now retired and living in Vermont, wrote a vivid memoir of his harrowing trips into the cave. The following excerpts are from that hitherto unpublished account:

It was my first trip into a cave, an amateur who knew nothing about it and had no fears—only eagerness.

Head-first we started into the hole, barely listening to the directions and advice offered by Homer [Collins] who, with a flashlight, followed for a short distance.

At the very beginning it was necessary to get down on hands and knees. We were in an ooze and slime. The way was downward, not sharply at first, but gradual. Soon Homer and the others turned back and without a light, we butted here and there before finding which way the winding, twisting pathway led. Now it was necessary to get down on my stomach and slide and squirm along, using elbows, and toes to propel me—and occasionally to slow up when I slid along too quickly. In some spots the ooze and slime made a toboggan slide of the passage.

Before I knew it I reached a sharp incline and could not break my speed. The incline made an elbow turn and I caromed head-first against some wet mass. It groaned and moved.

In panic I tried to push back off this thing but the steepness of the incline prevented it. Along the slippery sides I could get no hold and for minutes—it seemed longer—I was pressed against this horrible mass of wet something that moved a little and groaned pitifully, weakly.

Finally my groping hands found a crevice and I pushed back off this thing and tried to get back up around the turn. Head-down, my feet and arms seemed to have multiplied, octopus-like. The more I struggled, the tighter I lodged. I was hot and cold by turns and surprisingly weak. I struggled and pushed to no avail. Gradually reason returned and I knew that below me was Kloyd Collins; that I had landed on him with my full weight, light as it was, and that this other human being near me—though weak and pitiful—was alive.

By now, in weariness, I had stopped struggling and—miraculously—it seemed, I was not fast-bound. …

Cautiously now, I worked back down … [and] managed to push my right foot alongside Collins’ body. Except for one leg, it was impossible to get beyond his shoulders, although I did work one arm down to his hip despite his groans and pitiful, inarticulate sounds.

It was impossible to get past him, however, so I pushed my right foot as far down as I could and then doubled my left leg, and, lifting Floyd’s head, placed my knee down where his head had been and rested his head on my knee … and it was in this position that I later fed him while interviewing and seeking some method of effecting his release.

This time, however, I attempted to relight a lantern that had been knocked down when I crashed into him … [but his words], which I could not then make out, gave me an impression that the lantern light hurt his eyes. I left it unlit, as I started to return to the surface.

On his ,second trip Miller helped in the attempt to pull Collins loose with a rope. The next evening Miller made three trips down. He fed Collins milk through a rubber tube and tried to lift the rock off his leg with a small jack. A few minutes after he returned to the surface, a cave-in blocked the passage. The next day Miller, accompanied by a miner named Maddox, made his last trip into the cave and had a final conversation with Collins:

“Floyd, Floyd, oh Floyd,” we called.

There was no response. Both of us felt creepy, but again we called, this time louder.

There came a faint answer, made difficult to hear because of the muck and debris between us.

“Come on down, I’m free,” we finally made out.

“Are you sure?” we shouted several times.

“Come on down and see,” was the answer.

This made us desperate. What could we do? Was it possible that this man, already tortured beyond human endurance, had been freed by this second cave-in only to starve to death before he could be released?

Hoping he was unaware of the obstruction we shouted again.

“We cannot get to you right away,” I said, “but if you are hungry, do you see that bottle of milk above your head.” (It was the one I had placed in the crevice at the elbow the night before.)

“Yes,” came the answer.

“Well, if you are free, reach up and get it. It’s half full of milk.”

There was no answer.

“Floyd, can you reach the bottle?” we called eagerly.

“No, I can’t,” came the answer finally.

“Then you are not free, are you?”

A silence. We repeated the question.

Finally, almost sullenly, Collins answered:

“No, I am not free.”

Maddox and I sighed. …

A few days later the rescue team reached Collins’ corpse.

Miller concludes his account by refuting those who claimed Collins could have been saved by having his leg amputated:

No surgeon or physician on the scene could have reached Collins to do so and it would have been up to the writer to have both administered the ether and performed the operation. And while reporters are called upon to do many things, these are two that I would not have taken upon myself.…

It will be my everlasting regret that I could not effect his release, but never will I be weighed down with a feeling of personal responsibility for the death of Floyd Collins.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.