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Warning issued after 8 teens rescued from what has been deadly Twin Cities caves

Kyle Baarstad of Semple Excavating seals off a cave near Watergate Marina in St. Paul, using plywood, concrete,rocks and rebar, after several adults and juveniles were removed by St. Paul firefighters after attempting to enter and explore it, Tuesday morning, Nov. 28, 2017. Baarstad said that it was his third time sealing the hole, most recently he did it at the beginning of the summer of 2017. (Pioneer Press / Scott Takushi)

ST. PAUL—After firefighters had to descend into a St. Paul cave Tuesday to bring eight teenagers to safety, they sounded the alarm again: It is illegal to enter the city's caves and dangers abound.

No one was injured in Crosby Farm Regional Park on Tuesday morning, though young people have died in the city's caves in years past. Tuesday marked the second time in less than two weeks that firefighters have responded to teens in St. Paul caves.

"These caves are unsafe," said Assistant Fire Chief Mike Gaede. "They're not a playground. They're not to be messed with. We've had fatalities in these caves in St. Paul, and we're trying to do everything we can to get the word out that these are not a safe area to be."

At about 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, St. Paul Public Works employees were doing routine repair work on a storm drain when they saw young people with backpacks on a steep bluff. The group descended into an opening in the cliff.

"(The workers) yelled at them, saw the last two kind of shimmy down and yelled, 'Hey, you need to get out of there!' " Gaede said. "They didn't respond."

Police and firefighters were summoned to the area. Firefighters put together a rope-rescue system to access the cave area — it was about 150 feet up the cliff, Gaede said.

An advanced technical team of firefighters was able to use a ladder to climb down about 10 feet into the cave. Then, they searched for 20 minutes, heading 500 to 600 feet into the cave before finding the group, according to Gaede.

"We called out the entire time, 'Hello, anyone? Anyone?' " Gaede said. "They were not answering. ... They were huddled in a corner, hoping we would pass by, and they were not actively wanting to be found."

Two people in the group were 18 years old and the rest were 15 to 17, said Sgt. Mike Ernster, a St. Paul police spokesman.

Firefighters escorted the group out of the cave and used a rope system to get them down off the cliffs. They also assessed them for injuries. "There appeared to be a few little minor scrapes, but nothing major," Gaede said.

Paramedics took an 18-year-old to the hospital to be checked out, but it was unrelated to the rescue, Ernster said.

Ernster said the juveniles would be turned over to their parents Tuesday and the other 18-year-old was booked into the Ramsey County jail on suspicion of trespassing on a public utility, a gross misdemeanor.

The cave, which has part of a sewer system running through it, has been sealed for years, according to Brad Meyer, St. Paul Parks and Recreation spokesman.

Parks maintenance staff regularly check St. Paul's caves and a worker found last week that someone had removed a barrier by the cave, Meyer said. It was a large metal plate and someone had dug around it, Gaede said.

The city had to get a bid from a contractor to close the opening by the cave and the work was due to happen this week, but then the teens entered the area Tuesday morning. Workers were out Tuesday afternoon to reseal it, Meyer said.

The city uses concrete or metal rods to seal the caves, but people still dig around the concrete or find other ways to get in. The city has to spend about $20,000 a year to seal and reseal the areas that people dig out.

Firefighters have to rescue people from caves perhaps three or four times a year, according to the fire department. On Nov. 18, firefighters extricated two teenage boys from a deep cave on the city's West Side. In that case, the teens had climbed down a shaft to reach the cave about 100 feet below but could not climb back out.

The particular danger in caves is the unknown air quality, Gaede said. In April 2004, three teenagers died after they were overcome by carbon monoxide fumes while exploring the Wabasha Street caves.