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MAINZ, Germany – An injured researcher was carried out from a 3,000-foot deep Alpine cave in southeastern Germany on Thursday, 12 days after he suffered brain damage from being hit by falling rocks inside the rocky labyrinth.
Rescuers transported the 52-year-old on a stretcher through narrow tunnels, and pulled him up on a rope system through deep shafts, one of them nearly 600-feet long, officials said.
“This was a mammoth task,” Klemens Reindl, director of operations with Bavaria’s mountain rescue service, said at a press conference in nearby Berchtesgaden. “Before it happened, we could have never imagined such an operation.”
Officials said it was one of the biggest rescue missions in the German Alps with about 1,000 rescuers involved.
More than 200 specialists from several European countries had entered the Riesending cave, one of the deepest and longest systems in the German Alps, to recover the injured man.
The researcher, identified by German media as Johann Westhauser and described by colleagues as an experienced cave climber, was hit by rocks on June 9 during an expedition into the labyrinth of caves, canyons and tunnels deep inside an Alpine mountain.
It took the team who had been traveling with him 12 hours to reach the surface and call for help - and another day for the first rescuers to reach him.
The long operation took an emotional toll on rescuers.
“Even some of our strongest, toughest guys, who spent days inside the cave, had a tear in their eyes,” said Markus Schafheutle of Austria’s cave rescue.
Pictures from the scene showed members of his team at the cave entrance waiting for the researcher on a stretcher and then handing him in a long line to a waiting helicopter.
Bavarian officials said they would seal the cave to prevent tourists from entering and endangering themselves.