updated 3/23/2004 3:28:36 PM ET 2004-03-23T20:28:36

Rescuers were headed Tuesday to a remote cave system in central Mexico where British military servicemen have been trapped for nearly six days.

Five members of a British military caving expedition and their civilian British guide have been trapped by rising water in a cave system known as Alpazat, near the town of Cuetzalan, about 110 miles northeast of Mexico City.

“They have sleeping bags, a first-aid kit, and two-way radio,” a British Defense Ministry spokesman said on condition of anonymity. “At the moment, they are unharmed and morale is high, though they are slightly bored” after nearly a week in the cave.

“The entrance to that cave is very narrow ... and it appears that they can’t fit through it with normal oxygen tanks,” said Joe Hernandez Corona, operations manager for civil defense in the central state of Puebla.

Oxygen tanks can be sent in
Corona said two teams of specialized rescue personnel with ropes and oxygen tanks had set off from the state capital, also known as Puebla, and from Mexico City.

Two British cave diving experts flew from London to Mexico City early Tuesday, the Defense Ministry spokesman said. Six other members of the same British team serving as the surface crew were in contact with their team members trapped below ground.

The spokesman noted that oxygen tanks alone can apparently be sent into the cave should the oxygen level start declining, but he noted the cavern system is quite extensive and it does not appear that a lack of air is likely to become a problem.

The Alpazat cavern snakes about 90 yards down into Puebla’s Northern Mountains, and is a total of 8.5 miles long.

Surprise downpour
The drama began about noon Wednesday, when rain started falling during the planned three-day exercises by members of Britain’s Army, Navy and Air Force, known as the Combined Services Cuetzalan Tiger caving expedition.

“Several inches of unforecast rain began falling, flooding a low-lying section of the cave,” the Defense Ministry spokesman said. “Realizing the situation, the team switched to an alternate plan, retreating to a pre-prepared camp in an area that had never flooded.”

Corona said the Britons had not notified local authorities of their expedition, even though giving advance notice is a common safety procedure. “It just makes our job harder,” Corona said. “We learned about their problem almost by accident.”

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