CHARLESTON, W. Va. (AP) Caving enthusiast Bob Bennett recently got a rare opportunity when he helped lead an underground expedition of a previously undiscovered cave in Grant County.
The cave was discovered when contractors working on the Corridor H project accidentally pierced one of the cave walls while making a hillside road cut. Prior to that, there was no opening and it had existed undisturbed.
Charley Riling, special assistant to the state highway engineer for environmental projects, and environmental monitor for the Corridor H project, said he was immediately concerned about the potential danger posed by the cave.
No one knew the cave's size, or if its tunnels led under the site of the planned roadway, he said.
The state still had Bennett's phone number on hand from a previous cave exploration he had conducted, and he was called in to investigate.
"We had two main concerns," Riling said. "Did the cave go under the roadway, and did it have flowing water in it?"
If the cave ran under the construction site, it could have created instability as the roadbed was lowered into place, he said.
Along with five "hard-core" cavers, Bennett headed to Scherr to lend his expertise.
Among those accompanying Bennett was Nikki Fox, a professional photojournalist, who documented the expedition.
He said they backed his truck up to the small entrance and rigged their gear to the truck bed.
What they saw inside nearly took their breath.
"There was a body-sized slot, about 10 feet up on a wall, and once you went through this little hole, the other side was just fantastic," he said.
The cave was rich in mineral beauty with stalactites and delicate calcite formations hanging from the ceiling. Many of the walls were covered in large white crystals, he said.
"There were crystals everywhere," Bennett said. "It was just awesome. It blew our minds."
Foxx, who has explored new caves several times, said the Scherr cave was impressive.
"I map and survey caves so I get into the new stuff quite a lot," she said. "It was very small, but as far as formations go, it really does not get any better than this cave.
"It was just so gorgeous."
The cave had never been seen by human eyes. Bennett said he was particularly excited to know he was among the first to witness the wonders of the crystal cave.
The Martinsburg native also will be one of the only people ever to set foot inside the cave.
State officials plan to have the entrance sealed off as soon as possible.
Riling said the cave presents a potential hazard and the entrance would be sealed.
"We have a lot of concerns with it," he said. "That's why, from our standpoint, we are sealing it."
Riling said the cave crosses onto private property and the owner also wants the entrance closed off. He said the property owner, whom he did not name, wants to keep potential trespassers away.
Bennett said he understands the property owner's position.
"He doesn't want people going in under his land and maybe getting hurt," he said.
In the meantime, the state is asking everyone to stay away from the site. Officials did not disclose the exact location of the cave.
Knowing the cave eventually would be sealed, Bennett said it was tempting to take a few keepsakes with him. But he and his fellow cavers resisted the urge, he said.
He believes it is important that cave environments be altered as little as possible by explorers.
"You can't go against your beliefs," he said.
Bennett and the others were able to map the entirety of the cave in about six hours. The mapping allayed Rilings' concerns.
The cave is about 400 ft. long, and the passage actually curves away from the roadway, Bennett said.
"The point where we entered the cave to the bitter end was about 200 feet. If you add up all the passages in the cave, it amounted to about 400 feet. This included a passage going down to the in-cave pit, the hidden room and several side passages that went in the same direction as the main cave," he said.
The discovery of the cave did not delay progress on the Corridor H project, Riling said. Construction already had been halted due to nasty winter weather conditions.
Because the cave never had been opened to the outside world, Bennett said there was no wildlife of any kind inside.
Although it was a rare occasion for Bennett, he said caves actually are discovered more often than people might think.
"The list of caves in West Virginia and Virginia continues to grow," he said, adding that the geology of the state's Eastern Panhandle is very favorable to cave creation.
"About 85 percent of caves are in limestone," he said. "And that particular limestone out there is very cavity forming."
Bennett's history with the department is one of happenstance.
In 2003, Bennett got a call from a friend who told him a large sinkhole had opened near Martinsburg. He said he had to go investigate the opening for himself.
A work crew was trying to fill in the gaping pit when Bennett arrived. He said it was clear the workers didn't realize what they were up against.
"I could see they were all kind of confused," he said. "They had dumped about 20 dump truck loads of dirt down in it and it didn't even touch the pit."
He offered to go underground and map out the cave for the department, he said.
"I was surprised they let me do it," he said. "We surveyed it for them and then they saw what they needed to do."
He also gave his phone number and e-mail address to a state road official. Seven years later, he got the call to come to Scherr.
Bennett said he doesn't spend as much time underground as he used to. He has explored and mapped caves for more than three decades. These days he still goes caving at least once or twice a month.
In the 30 years he has spent caving, Bennett has had a few close calls.
While exploring a cave in Virginia a few years ago, Bennett said he fell in a hole and did serious damage to his ankle.
"It wasn't broken, but the doctor said it would have been better if it was," he said, adding that he had to wear an ankle brace off and on for about six years after the incident.
He was about 1,000 ft. underground at the time, and his fellow spelunkers had to help him back to the entrance.
Others who accompanied Bennett and Fox on the Scherr Cave exploration were Chris Coates, Bob Denton, Kurt Waldron, Terry McClanaphan and Danny Cumbo.
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