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Sunday, August 14, 2022

What faith demands: UF student sacrificed his life to comfort his friend

<p>Grant Lockenbach, 20, a sociology junior and president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, led a group of UF students on a cave exploration trip in LaFayette, Ga.</p>

Grant Lockenbach, 20, a sociology junior and president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, led a group of UF students on a cave exploration trip in LaFayette, Ga.


Keri O'Neil is a heavy sleeper; few disturbances get her up and moving. But at 5 a.m. on Feb. 12, lying on the maroon carpet in Room 108 of the Key West Inn, all it took was a slight shake of the foot.

"Do you want to go some place really cool with me?" Grant Lockenbach asked.


The room was still dark as eight other UF students slept through the conversation. They had come to LaFayette, Ga., to spend the day exploring caves.

"Come on," he said. "I've been up for more than an hour. There's this really cool place I want to go. Just come with me."

Lockenbach had checked into the hotel at 11:40 the night before, though nobody went to sleep until 3 a.m., when the second half of the group arrived from Gainesville. This morning marked O'Neil and Lockenbach's 20th day as a couple, and she had already grown used to her boyfriend's impulsiveness.

When the two couldn't decide on an appropriate time for their first date, he came to O'Neil's house and asked her to hop in his beat-up green Volvo. He drove to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, and they sat behind the end zone, just talking. It was a weeknight in January, and Lockenbach had to get up at 5 a.m. for ROTC training. He didn't care. They talked for hours.

Lockenbach and O'Neil first met through Fellowship of Christian Athletes as freshmen in September 2008, but they didn't become close until Keri's twin, Michele, started dating one of Lockenbach's best friends in the summer of 2010. While on a religious fast at the beginning of this year, Lockenbach thought he heard God telling him to date Keri. He wrote her a poem, asking to take her on a date at the end. She needed to think about it.

"No pressure, but I'm 100 percent confident that we're supposed to be dating," he said.

On the morning of Feb. 12, she agreed to sneak out of the hotel. Lockenbach, who stood 6-feet tall, 175 pounds with a strong jaw and buzzed black hair, handed her three pairs of socks. About 15 minutes later, she sat shoeless overlooking LaFayette, a rural Georgia town 101 miles northwest of Atlanta with a population of about 8,000 and a billboard appealing to the Sons of the Confederate Army. Lockenbach didn't care about losing sleep. He wanted to watch the sun rise.

The only problem was neither of them knew which direction to look or when the sun would actually come up. They sat. They talked. They waited. And, two hours later, shivering in the dim, 28-degree morning, they left.

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Within 10 minutes, as they drove down the hill, the sun peeked over the horizon. Lockenbach pulled a 10-point turn and gunned his car back up.

"What were we thinking?" he asked, frustrated with his own impatience. "It's not like the sun just wasn't going to rise today."

* * *

Michael Pirie heard screams, but he didn't hear words. Nobody did.

It was 2 p.m., and Pirie stood with eight others at the ledge of a 125-foot pit. The group was hoping for a fun weekend surveying Pigeon Mountain. But now, standing on that ledge amid the darkness of Ellisons Cave, they were desperate to decipher Lockenbach's voice.

Each member of the group was part of FCA, and Lockenbach was the president. He was the most experienced caver - one of the only experienced cavers, in fact.

A thrill-seeker, Lockenbach started cave diving three years ago. During the 2010-2011 school year alone, he had gone on at least five trips, roommate Aaron McPhail said. Two weeks earlier, Lockenbach led a group to Tumbling Rock Cave in Jackson County, Ala. Before that, on his way back from New York after a New Year's Eve trip, Lockenbach and his friends explored PettyJohns, one of about 60 caves inside Pigeon Mountain.

Lockenbach was a member of the university's ROTC, trained to parachute from planes and rappel out of helicopters. He belonged to a local rock-climbing gym, where he once chatted with his mother on the phone while hanging upside-down. He dropped the phone, and her ears were greeted with a thud.

On this Saturday afternoon, the rest of the students explored a separate part of Ellisons Cave while Lockenbach and Pirie rigged ropes at the Warm Up Pit. In the process, a black High Sierra backpack somehow fell 125 feet below them. The bag held ropes and other climbing gear, so Lockenbach went down to retrieve it.

Now, minutes later, Pirie and the rest of the group listened intently. For whatever reason, Lockenbach's voice was not reaching them clearly. Perhaps his words were muffled from bouncing off the rocks. Or maybe he couldn't compete with the sound of the waterfall.

Snow had fallen in LaFayette three days earlier, and cold water ran through the cave toward the pits. During their exploration, the other eight students had, at times, been waist-deep.

It was fitting that Pirie, a marketing freshman from Oviedo, and Lockenbach, a sociology junior from DeLand, split from the rest of the group. During a three-day weekend retreat in January to Gatlinburg, Tenn., Lockenbach told other upperclassmen that Pirie could one day become the FCA president.

Most members of the group hardly knew Pirie before the trip. He played bass in the 29-member UF drumline, and he spent eight hours a week at practice during the fall. But football season was finished, and he had become more involved with FCA.

In Tennessee, he became "Magic Mike" after surprising people with card illusions ("Tricks are for kids; I do illusions," he once wrote in a document on his computer). As a senior at Lake Highland Prepatory the previous year, Pirie had been president of Project Magic, the Orlando chapter of David Copperfield's organization that performs magic shows in hospitals and low-income communities.

He cut women into thirds and reattached them. He used metamorphosis to switch places with a friend padlocked inside a mail bag. He had mastered the teleportation box. But his specialty was sleight of hand. He was named Mr. Lake Highland Prep after turning one student's card into ash, rubbing it on both sides of his forearm and exposing a message reading, "The Ace of Spades."

Luckily, someone had a deck in Tennessee.

"That was crazy," one FCA member said. "He did this one trick where he pulled a card out of nowhere. It was like some David Blaine stuff. For real, dude."

Lockenbach was just as impressed by Magic Mike's commitment to FCA. Pirie played drums in the worship team during Wednesday night services and was at Bible study every Monday. When Lockenbach and other FCA members finished a three-week religious fast, Pirie showed up at the celebration just to be with them. Lockenbach wolfed down waffle sandwiches with scoops of ice cream in between. Pirie ate uncooked turkey bacon drizzled in chocolate syrup just because someone said, "You won't."

Pirie was 5-foot-9 and 152 pounds, and his brown hair seemed to always stay perfect, combed left to right. He liked wakeboarding, snowboarding and doing flips off swing sets. He invented dances: Stomp the Rat, Tip the Hat, Kick the Cat. He told friends in FCA he would massage a sleeping girl's bare feet if he lost a bet. He won the bet. He did it anyway.

"They're the same person. Mike is like the freshman version of Grant," said Michele O'Neil, who stood beside Pirie in Ellisons Cave.

The group knew Lockenbach needed help, so three students sprinted down the mountain to call 911. They had brought a cellphone into the cave for emergencies, but it sat at the bottom of the pit.

Pirie and the rest of the students who stayed in the cave heard bits of Lockenbach's screams. He yelled for Pirie. They tried to explain a rescue team was coming, tried to tell him to stay calm for just a little longer. In a half hour, they said, the rescue team will be here. But their voices weren't reaching him, and Lockenbach kept calling for Michael, kept telling him he needed help.

The group needed a liaison, someone who could calm Lockenbach as they waited for the rescue team. A girl volunteered, but Pirie rebuffed her.

"Can you pray for me?" he asked. "Because I have no idea what I'm doing."

He then strapped on a white helmet and descended. He didn't rappel, a woman in the group later remembered. He basically just fell down the pit.

"We're OK," Pirie yelled from somewhere below. "We're just cold."

At the ledge, Keri O'Neil prayed.

God, save them. Comfort them.

* * *

Pigeon Mountain forms the right half of a V with Lookout Mountain, and the two fuse at the northwestern corner of Georgia. The former occupies about 20,000 acres and reaches an altitude of about 2,300 feet. It lies on the Tennessee-Alabama-Georgia line, a North American spelunking Mecca. Every year, 10,000 cavers come to the mountain.

Nobody knows when people started investigating the intestines of Pigeon Mountain, but historians found ads more than a century old persuading readers to explore PettyJohns Cave. Ellisons is one of the most popular spots among experienced cavers looking for a challenge, most notably because of Fantastic Pit and its 586-foot drop - the deepest caving pit in the continental United States.

The Crockford-Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area is located off Georgia Highway 193, but even from LaFayette it can be difficult to navigate. There are several entrances, but no reassuring signs. Even after finding the desired entrance, an inexperienced caver can easily get lost.

When hiking toward PettyJohns, for example, a path can form in the mind's eye only to disappear steps later among the rocks and wrinkled brown leaves that swallow each step. If hikers turn left, they may think they took a wrong turn. They will try to turn back before realizing they don't know how they arrived in the first place. Then comes the actual cave.

For Lockenbach, this was a proper sport, a sport untouched by man-made attraction. There are no real rules, only suggestions. The rocks are the boundaries. Caving is not a sport in the sense of winning and losing. There is no race to the top, no medal for exploring the deepest pits. And the danger, unlike in most traditional sports, is always real.

According to the National Speleological Society, between 1986 and 2008, there were reports worldwide of 394 cavers falling, 162 being stranded or trapped, 169 being hit by falling rocks, 100 getting lost and 49 suffering from hypothermia. Seventy-five cavers died.

But this trip was not about danger or, really, any type of discovery for Lockenbach.

"He doesn't plan trips because he loves caving," said Dustin Gill, one of his roommates. "He plans trips because he wants to get to know people."

* * *

Gill was not supposed to go to LaFayette with Lockenbach and Aaron McPhail, his other roommate.

A paper was due Sunday night, and he hadn't even started. But when a car showed up at 7 p.m. on Friday to pick up McPhail - Lockenbach and others left around noon - Gill decided to go, too.

You could knock out two pages in the hotel room, his friends convinced him. He scrambled to pack a bag, and 10 minutes later, he was riding in Michele O'Neil's blue 2005 Ford Escape.

Like the others in his group, Gill did not realize Lockenbach was in trouble when he first arrived at the Warm Up Pit. He could hear yelling, but the only words he understood were, "Help!" and "I'm stuck!"

McPhail and another man started walking back to the parking lot to call for assistance, but Gill continued to hear Lockenbach's screams and realized the situation was more desperate than anyone originally thought. He bolted down the mountain.

Gill and Lockenbach met in Mrs. Adney's third grade class at Woodward Avenue Elementary School in DeLand. Lockenbach's family had just moved from Atlanta. Both students were in the school's gifted program, and they were in the same classes for three straight years.

They had grown up climbing trees and eating Chinese plums. In Gainesville, Lockenbach would pop his head in Gill's room to bum cookie dough or instigate debates with questions like, "What would Karl Marx think about Walmart?"

Reaching the bottom of Pigeon Mountain, Gill dialed 911 at 2:19 p.m. He tried to remain calm, but he struggled to catch his breath. His voice cracked.

"It's just one guy who is down there and can't get back up," he said, unaware of what Pirie would soon do. "He said he would flash his flashlight if he needed help. I think he dropped his flashlight because all you can see is the light down there. There's water. We can't hear anything he's saying, but he's definitely calling for help."

* * *

"We're OK. We're just cold," Pirie continued to tell whoever could hear him.

It was 3:30 p.m. He had been in the pit for half an hour, and he still didn't know when the rescue team would arrive. He told Lockenbach they would soon be safe, and he kept yelling to Keri, letting her know they were hanging on. But the panic in Pirie's voice betrayed him.

"Grant!" he yelled. Pirie repeated the name twice more - Grant! Grant! - his voice growing louder, more desperate each time.

Keri asked Pirie if her boyfriend was OK, knowing the truth before the words escaped her mouth. Pirie did not lie, electing instead to misinterpret the question.

"I'm fine," he told her. "I'm fine."

She asked again. And, again, Pirie answered a different question.

By about 3:45 p.m., Keri lost hope. She stopped asking questions. When the three-man Initial Response Task Force arrived at 3:58 p.m., she left with the two other women who had stayed in the cave. As she walked into the light, Keri cried, sure she would never see her boyfriend again.

* * *

The first members of the rescue team arrived in the gravel parking lot at the base of Pigeon Mountain at 3:11 p.m., about an hour after Gill dialed 911. Unlike with crimes or fires, caving emergencies demand a long response time.

A rescue team isn't sitting together at a police station or a fire department, just waiting to spring into action when needed. Chuck Waters, the regional supervisor of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, was at the mall when he received the call.

In all, the rescue team consisted of 34 members: five from the department of natural resources, six from Walker County Emergency Services and 23 volunteers.

Once members of the team had assembled, they still had to march one mile to the cave, located 850 feet above the parking lot. The Initial Response Task Force started the hike at 3:20 p.m. They reached the Warm Up Pit about 40 minutes later, and Anmar Mirza rappelled to where Lockenbach and Pirie were suspended - about 80 feet down.

Neither man responded to Mirza's calls.

Pirie was below Lockenbach, his head resting on his own right shoulder and his helmet hanging by a string. Pirie's left arm was extended, a thick black rope wrapped around his wrist. That rope was entangled with another.

When the rescue team found him, Lockenbach's mouth and nose were filled with water. His arms were stretched out, his face tilted toward the sky.

Nobody knows exactly what happened to Lockenbach during his descent. Some members of the rescue team think his rope was too short for the 125-foot pit. Others say the rope's length was fine, suggesting he was unable to maneuver once he became trapped in the waterfall.

Water running down the pit came from the nearby snow that had just started melting. Its temperature was in the high 30s or low 40s. Cavers are instructed to wear three layers of clothing in such conditions. Lockenbach was wearing a blue Florida Gators T-shirt, Pirie a black long-sleeved shirt and khaki shorts. When the rescue team found him, Lockenbach had been in the waterfall for more than two hours, Pirie for about half as long.

According to the autopsy report, it is possible that one or both of them experienced cold shock response. With their bodies submerged in water of that temperature, they could have hyperventilated for up to three minutes. Both men would have eventually recovered.

Body temperature normally rests at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit; hypothermia occurs when it dips below 95. In 40-degree water, it can take effect in 10 to 20 minutes, but Lockenbach and Pirie weren't fully submerged, likely delaying the process. Once hypothermia sets in, however, muscles grow weak and blood flows toward the core of the body, away from the extremities, causing loss of coordination.

The heart and the nervous system and other organs stop functioning correctly, and speech is slurred, and confusion sets in. Breathing becomes slow. It becomes shallow. Organs soon fail; it just becomes a matter of which one stops first, which one becomes the culprit.

But well before any organ failed, well before the nearly ice-cold water overwhelmed Pirie and Lockenbach, they likely experienced Suspension Trauma.

As you hang in a harness, blood begins to build up in your legs. If you can move around and shift your weight, the blood will continue to circulate.

But if you stop moving, your circulation slows. Your brain, realizing it is not receiving the proper blood flow, sends your body into shock. Your pulse increases. You breathe faster. You feel sick. You sweat. You shiver. You become anxious. Eventually, you faint.

When the rescue team found the bodies, they also found two lights shining: a headlamp on a nearby ledge and a Mini Maglite 40 feet below.

* * *

"Would God ever ask you to jump off a cliff?"

Jason Mills posed that question to the FCA freshmen Bible study group in his living room one Monday night.

He had been reading "The Shack," a Christian novel. In the book, Mack, the protagonist, takes his daughters on a camping trip. He tells them about a princess who jumped off a cliff to cure her tribe of a disease. His daughter wondered why the princess had to sacrifice her life. She asked her father if God would force her to do the same. Mack said no. God would never do that.

So, Mills asked, do you agree with Mack? Pirie was the first to answer. As he spoke, Mills thought to himself, "This kid is not confused. He knows what his faith demands of him." Five days later, Pirie rappelled down the Warm Up Pit inside Ellisons Cave.

"I had no idea how literal that question would be in Michael's life," Mills told a group of friends the night after Pirie died.

Pirie would have turned 19 on June 18; Lockenbach was just one week shy of his 21st birthday. But in the weeks following their deaths, a theme emerged at funerals and campus memorial services: They simply were not meant to grow old. Forever, they will be the kids who invented "extreme swinging" on middle school playgrounds. Forever, they will be the ones who planned to drink their first beers with bums to show they cared.

Dustin Gill and Aaron McPhail, who both lived with Lockenbach, said they are recovering as best they can. They live in the same house this year. They rented out Lockenbach's room to a friend. It's just a room. It's not Grant.

"Imagine a staircase with the bottom being despair and the top being accepting reality," Gill said. "I'm doing OK because I'm going up the steps. The steps hurt. Going back to the hotel that night, that hurt. Driving his car back to Gainesville the next morning, that hurt. But as long as I keep moving up the steps and not going back, I'm doing OK."

The week after the trip, Keri O'Neil would not eat unless someone placed food in front of her. The idea of standing up and walking across the room to her kitchen was exhausting. She had good reason. Every night, almost every hour, on the hour, she woke up.

After her boyfriend woke her with a slight shake of the foot in Room 108 of the Key West Inn, Keri O'Neil became a light sleeper.

Grant Lockenbach, 20, a sociology junior and president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, led a group of UF students on a cave exploration trip in LaFayette, Ga.

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