Perillos makes headline news
February 24, 2007. What should have been a random visit to Perillos turned
out to become something entirely different. Shortly after 4pm, a fire engine
traverses Tautavel with blazing sirens, in what must be a raging fire –
judging from the speed it crosses through the village and the risks it takes
along the way, including a 90 degree turn it takes on the proverbial two
wheels. The other aspect of why this must be a fire, is because this is
a water carrying truck.
At 16h45, André Douzet and I decide to make a brief visit to Perillos. On approach, we find two Spanish vans parked opposite the chapel Saint Barbara, with a small “gendarmerie” car at the foot of the small hill upon which the chapel rests. Arriving in the abandoned village, we note that our fire engine, seen an hour earlier, sits quietly in the parking lot, accompanied by two other, smaller fire brigade cars. Its occupants are totally relaxed, talking. While we begin our inspection of the now legalised restoration work in the village, the fire crew continue to chat away in their cars. It seems that the high speed journey through Tautavel must have been part of an exercise, in which firemen are being trained and prepared for the upcoming summer – which, if 2006 was anything to go by, may be very dry and may see several fires.
walking about in the village, we make the acquaintance of some old friends
who are showing family around the village, as well as some tourists. After
about half an hour, we see all three cars descend, with the one Landrover
deciding to apparently go in the direction of the old road that connects
the village with the rest of civilisation – a road only equipped for
4x4s, for some distance. The exercise, it appears, is over; the new firemen
must now be familiar with the area.
After a few more minutes, our friends decide to return to their home; the tourists have already gone. We make preparations to leave as well, but do not do so immediately. And while roaming about, we notice that the Landrover has returned to its position on the top of the crest, and thus largely hidden from view.
We begin our descent, but only as far as a water reservoir at the foot of the hill on which Perillos sits, which we had noted on arrival as being filled to capacity, the first time we have seen this in a decade. Rather than excessive rain, the likely explanation is that work carried out in the village, has changed the natural water system.
After a further ten minutes, around 18h00, we begin to leave the area… only to see that a few hundred yards ahead, the road at the Chapel Saint Barbara is blocked by a van from the fire brigade. Our fire engine sits along the road, just behind the car of the French gendarmes who has been there for more than an hour. We continue to hold and notice civilian cars, guided by other fire cars behind, directed to the hill of the chapel; the cars all park on top; at the foot we notice some material that is required for cave expeditions. There are, as far as we know, no immediate caves on top of the chapel and for anyone to park precisely there, suggests the incident has occurred there. For if anywhere else, the firemen and civilians would have to descend with their material from the hill.
“Someone is trapped”
the road is blocked, André Douzet steps out of the car and demands
how long we will be before we can leave… and what precisely is happening.
Already, our friends had told us that they had seen the mayor disappear
in an all-terrain vehicle towards the cave La Caune – when they were
ascending to the village, now almost an hour ago.
As André steps out of the car, the fireman climbs into his car and reverses it, so we can pass. We still ask what has happened. “Someone has fallen into a hole, 150 metres deep, and is blocked.” We are amazed, for not only do we not know of such a hole in that location, it appears that the cave/hole is one of the deepest in the region.
leave and where the road to Perillos joins the road Vingrau-Opoul, a car
from the French gendarmes has blocked the road. When we approach, it reverses
to let us pass.
We decide to visit friends in Opoul, one of whom knows Perillos almost like the back of his hand and a cave of this magnitude, he will definitely be familiar with. The view from their kitchen window provides a vista over the surrounding hills. And all of sudden we see one blue light – fire engines – after another, eight to ten in total, all appearing from the direction of Rivesaltes, all passing in front of their home, in the direction of Perillos. Some time later, we notice three to four cars returning, in the other direction, going towards Rivesaltes. But rather than continue to Rivesaltes, they make a left hand turn, towards a facility where the military stores gunpowder and like. After ten minutes, they leave the area, to return to Perillos.
Our friends decide to ask around and someone from the village who should know, repeats that someone is indeed trapped and the fire brigades are trying to save him. Meanwhile, we get the confirmation that there is no cavity of such magnitude on top of the chapel of Saint Barbara.
Around 20h, we leave, passing by the road to Perillos, which is now no longer blocked by the Gendarmes, but by one car of the DDE (French road works), with two similar cars sitting in the small parking area in front of the turn. Why the DDE has been called to block this road is another small enigma.
So, at present, we have a massive presence of fire engines, but also some anomalies: at 16h15, a fire engine drives through Tautavel, yet we find it sitting in the village of Perillos, as if there is no hurry. Meanwhile, it seems, in the valley below, a caver is in dire need of help, yet the only presence is a gendarme car, while the three fire cars sit quietly near the village.
Local and national headline news
following morning, the Sunday edition of L’Independant headlines:
“Opoul: 3 spéléologues bloqués à –
150 mètres” – “Opoul – three cavers blocked
at minus 150 metres”. The location is given as the “trou de
Sainte-Barbe”, at La Charelle, four hundred metres from the chapel
itself, and in terrain that is only accessible on foot.
That same day, television news reports on the accident, stating that the caver has died. The following scenario is presented: the accident happened around 15h30 on Saturday; the alarm was raised at 16h by a caver from the l'Agrupació Excursionista from Granollers, near Barcelona, whose instructor was seriously injured. A third caver was initially thought to be locked inside the cave, but though slightly injured, it was later learned that she did not wish to leave her injured instructor behind.
Later in the evening, there were cavers from the centre Pleine Nature de Conques-sur-Orbiel, whose mission it was to enlarge the opening by explosives to rescue the instructor. The one person who stayed behind was rescued with minimal injuries, and around 21h30 or 23h (reports vary), Jordi Icart, 51 years old, was found to have died. Earlier, it was reported that he had several fractures, but it appears that a large rock became dislodged and fell upon him.
Official causes of death
he was found to have died, it was then decided that the rescue operation
was finished and that an investigation began – though it should have
been quite obvious what the cause of death was. The team to remove the body
arrived at 16h on Sunday, to begin their work at 23h; they finished on Monday
morning at 7am. Around 9h30, the gendarmes of the PGHM of Oloron and the
fire brigade were finally able to remove the body.
The previous day, Sunday, a press conference was organised by Dominique Alzéari, the adjunct procurator, and Col. Hubert, Commander of the gendarmes of Perpignan, as well as the general consul of Spain, Enrique Ruiz Molero. It was announced that the accident had occurred around 15h30. They explained that there would be a medical examination, and possibly an autopsy – though, in our opinion, the cause of death should be clearly identifiable.
As mentioned, no-one in the region had heard of this large cave. It was learned that the hole was only discovered a year ago, was not secure, and had the reputation of being dangerous, because of the fragile rocks lining it. But, as mentioned, its existence was totally unknown to the local terrain experts, to whom such discoveries are normally well-known. How cavers from Granollers, near Barcelona, therefore learned about this, is something of an enigma and the newspapers thus reported that this was probably through word of mouth or the internet. We did a search on the internet and did not retrieve any pages, and the word of mouth must have travelled fast – and far, though not locally.
By Wednesday, it was reported that the departmental authorities placed all responsibility with the municipality of Opoul-Perillos. It stated that the cave would more than likely be sealed, because of its “perilous nature”.
note several anomalies:
- Though the fire brigade could do little because of the nature of the accident, for a long period of time, they did nothing at all – sitting for 45 minutes on top of the hill, whereas all the activity was occurring in the valley below. Some help could have been given, if only by making preparations for the work that was to be carried out next. The fire brigade must have known the location of the chapel, if only because it was marked by the police car, so they could not have been “lost”.
- Why was a water truck sent? A water truck was probably the only car of no use whatsoever, and this was in evidence as it just sat alongside the road.
- Why did the fire brigade go in search of explosives at the depot of Opoul, where normally only large, military explosive material is stored – which seems hardly suitable for the type of precise material required for the operation inside the cave.
- Why was the road blocked at night by the DDE? Why was their help called, in what seems to be a straightforward rescue operation, with no need whatsoever to repair any road or roadside material, and definitely not in the location where they were.
Another cave for Perillos
Hardly anyone knew of the existence of this cave, which sits within a desolate valley in which no-one will venture by accident. The rescuers all parked in the vicinity of the Chapel of Saint Barbara, from which a path leads into the general direction of the cave. One then needs to follow the valley upwards, over rough terrain, until it arrives at a small shelter, very old, which has nevertheless very recently – a year ago? – been re-equipped with a roof and shows clear signs of usage. Was this where these or other speleologists stayed should they come on expeditions of more than one day?
someone found this cave entrance in this desolate location, and it seems
that at least one team of speleologists – if not more – repeatedly
visited the cave, judging from the manner in which they had equipped the
shelter, which in itself must have been an arduous task.
Furthermore, the cave’s entrance shows clear signs of having been fenced off by carefully stacked rocks – but this time, it is clear that the work around the cave’s mouth is far older than just one year. How old? Who knows. But perhaps speleologists, in some type of “trade secret”, may have tried to keep the existence of this cave secret, so that it did not become overrun by others. As such, it may be that it remained unknown to the local experts, including several hunters.
We note that this headline news, which made it to the top pages of several national newspapers and national television, underlines that there are indeed vast – and dangerous – cave systems in Perillos. An extremely profound cave on Montaillou Perillou exists, but was “secured” when the radar station was built on top of the mountain. Cave entrances continue to be found almost on a weekly basis in this area, but it is equally clear that the exploration of these is extremely dangerous.