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Paloma Bombín and Alfonso Urrutia, after being rescued from the cave. Juanjo Santamaria
Regional government considers charging two lost cavers for 40-hour rescue mission in Spain involving 125 personnel
112 incident

Regional government considers charging two lost cavers for 40-hour rescue mission in Spain involving 125 personnel

An investigation has been opened to determine whether the pair were negligent or if the body maintaining the cave in Cantabria is responsible

Gonzalo Sellers

Santander

Wednesday, 26 June 2024, 16:00

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Two speleologists who became lost in a Cantabrian cave and were finally rescued after 40 hours and a mission that involved 125 people could be charged by the regional government.

Alfonso Urrutia and Paloma Bombín were trapped for 50 hours in the Garmaciega-Sima del Sombrero cave in Soba. Their rescue involved 125 personnel from Cantabria, Asturias and Castilla y León, 27 vehicles, two helicopters and several drones.

The Cantabrian government has not released the figure of how much the rescue mission cost, but the latest incident has sparked debate on whether such incidents should be paid for by the regional government. Back in 2019, the then president of Cantabria, Miguel Ángel Revilla, said: "We cannot be spending public money on adventurers". However, neither his government nor others have made use of the fees provided for since the Law of Measures of 2001 in the region, unlike other regions that do charge them, such as Asturias, where the bill for 30 rescues has been passed since 2015.

In the case of the two speleologists rescued last week, their responsibility has yet to be proven. This will be done by the regional ministry of the presidency, headed by Isabel Urrutia, who has decided to open an investigation into the rescue of Alfonso and Paloma.

What we know so far is that both, with considerable experience in cave exploration, paid a fee of 25 euros to the Fundación Espeleosocorro Cántabro (Esocan), in charge of the maintenance of the cave. They also informed a friend of their entry into the cave and of the time they planned to leave, which was key, later, to activate the search operation.

However, they failed to comply with one of the requirements set by regional regulations: they did not notify the 112 emergency service they would be exploring the cave. The investigation will have to determine whether there was an error of judgement or whether Esocan was responsible.

The general-directorate of safety of the Cantabrian government will interview the two people rescued, as well as witnesses and members of Esocan to clarify whether or not there was negligence.

"We were prepared, we had water, food and everything we needed"

Failure to call 112 before entering a cave is one of the five offences punishable under regional regulations. Another of these, that of not carrying the "essential equipment" for the activity to be carried out, seems not to have been breached in this case. In fact, Alfonso Urrutia was particularly categorical, as soon as he came out of the cave, in making it clear: "We were prepared, we had water, food and everything we needed".

Something that cannot be said by the couple who have the dubious honour of having been the protagonists in the only case of rescue charges made by the government of Cantabria since the taxes were introduced 23 years ago. It was in 2022 when the PRC-PSOE bipartite passed the bill to them after they became lost in the snow for "not carrying the right equipment". The rescued couple was charged 300 euros.

If the government considers Alfonso and Paloma were negligent, the bill would be much higher. In addition to the cost of having two helicopters to carry out the search - 1,906 euros per take-off and the same for each hour of flight - we would have to add the cost of the speleological rescue, such as 569 euros for the first six hours and 200 euros for each additional hour. Bearing in mind the operation lasted 40 hours, it could be a five-figure bill.

Wary of charging rescue fees

In addition to not notifying 112 and not having the appropriate equipment, there are three other punishable offences in the regulations: ignoring a bad weather alert, ignoring warning and danger signs, and not having the necessary permits and authorisations. Nor does there appear to be any breach of these in the case of the rescued cavers.

Only minors under 16 years of age and persons suffering from a mental disability that implies difficulties in understanding risk or danger are exempted from these regulations.

The Cantabrian regional government is wary of charging rescue fees, as it has only done so on one occasion in the past 23 years, and not in such striking cases as the rescue of a cow on the cliffs of Ruiloba or the driver who drove his car into the beach of Oyambre, to cite some of the most recent cases.

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