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May 27, 2017

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German spelunker rescued after 11-day ordeal

BERLIN--Rescuers hoisted a seriously injured German spelunker to safety on Thursday, ending an 11-day ordeal of being trapped in Germany's deepest and longest cave with a dramatic recovery operation.

A multi-national team consisting of hundreds of emergency personnel 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 meters below ground in the labyrinthine Riesending cave system 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 service and who 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 fiberglass 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 180-meter vertical shaft near the entrance to the cave, officials said.

The rescue effort, high in the mountains near the Austrian border, has involved professional spelunkers, 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 meters deep cave were extremely difficult."

"The fact that they still managed is a great success for the volunteer rescue workers."

Veteran spelunker Westhauser was exploring the cave system with two others when he suffered head and chest injuries in a rock fall.

One of his companions made the more than 10-hour trip back to the surface to raise the alarm while the other 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. It is more than 19 kilometers long and up to 1,150 meters deep.

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