The first rescuer to reach the two people trapped in a cave at Maquoketa Caves State Park this past weekend says he had to walk and often crawl about 300 feet just to get to the pair. Robert Edwards of the Maquoketa Fire Department and Rescue Squad then started hacking away at the rock wall with a chisel to get the spelunkers.

“There was a 90-degree turn that you had to take to go down a small corridor, about 10 to 12 feet away, before you could actually get to them and that was the problem we were having,” Edwards says. “…We had to remove and chisel some rock away before we could actually get around that turn.”

Edwards then retreated and let his partner crawl forward to assess the situation.

“I didn’t want to crawl back there and become part of the problem,” Edwards says.

Edwards was afraid exhaustion from his rock-chiseling might lead him to get stuck in the cave. Air quality was an issue, too.

“It was a very confined space. I was just trying to use a regular, hand-held air chisel and they’re not very big to begin with. Just working in that 90-degree area and trying to maneuver this air chisel around, it was very difficult — plus there was no air movement and all the dirt and dust just lingered in the air,” Edwards says. “…I would stop for a little bit, let everything settle, talk to them to see how they were doing, and then I would continue again.”

It took about three hours before the first spelunker — a woman — was freed from the cave. It was 20 hours before the second cave explorer — a man — was freed. Edwards says the man had been standing in a v-shaped crack in the cave, but his foot must have slipped after his female colleague was freed and that’s when he got wedged in the cave. A rescue team from the Rock Island Arsenal then arrived with jack hammers to work to free the second cave explorer.

Before this past Friday night Edwards never knew this particular cave even existed.

Edwards made his comments Tuesday during an interview that aired on Iowa Public Radio.