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Jubilant rescuers hoisted to safety an injured German cave explorer on Thursday, ending an 11-day ordeal in dark and icy caverns deep in the Bavarian Alps and an "incredible" recovery effort by over 700 emergency personnel.
Johann Westhauser, 52, had suffered serious head injuries in a June 8 rockfall about 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) below ground in the labyrinth-like Riesending cave complex, Germany's deepest and longest.
Some 274 hours later, a complex, costly and painstaking operation involving five nations managed to winch Westhauser's stretcher into the daylight before a helicopter flew him to a hospital for emergency treatment.
His rescuers battled dangerous conditions, near-freezing temperatures and poor communications for almost a week as they methodically negotiated a treacherous network of tunnels and chambers, underground lakes and ice-cold waterfalls.
"A new chapter has been written in the history of Alpine rescue," said the head of the mountain rescue service, Norbert Heiland, who stressed that in the beginning the effort had seemed "simply impossible".
Mission chief Klemens Reindl spoke of a "mammoth task" that involved 202 rescuers below ground out of a total of 728 staff and volunteers in caving, medical and emergency services from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy and Croatia.
"They slaved away down there, it was a top performance ... The elite of European mountain rescue was gathered here," he told a press conference.
He said Westhauser, who suffered skull and brain trauma among other injuries, had arrived by police helicopter at an undisclosed German clinic, and that "under the circumstances, he is doing well".
- Cave 'should be closed' -
The cave's name, Riesending, literally means "giant thing" or "whopper", apparently what mountaineers exclaimed when they discovered it in 1995. The cave system is more than 19 kilometres (12 miles) long and up to 1,150 metres (3,770 feet) deep and was not mapped until 2002.
Westhauser was exploring the cave with two others when the accident happened. One of his companions then travelled around 12 hours back to the surface to raise the alarm while the third person stayed behind.
The subterranean rescue operation, which started its slow ascent last Friday, involved rest periods in five bivouac stops, followed by a series of vertical shafts as long as 180 metres (590 feet) leading to the mouth of the cave, where Westhauser surfaced at 0944 GMT.
"It was one of the most difficult rescue operations in the history of the mountain rescue service," said Reindl in a statement. "Especially the international character of the mission was remarkable."
"I am so relieved," said cave photographer Carsten Peters, speaking on news channel NTV. "If you know the difficulties of this cave, then you had to think in the beginning that he didn't really stand a chance.
"Negotiating a stretcher through that, through the very narrow spaces, the waterfalls, the corners and chutes, is almost unimaginable. What the rescuers achieved is simply incredible."
German Red Cross president Rudolf Seiters also praised the effort, saying "the conditions under which the helpers had to rescue the seriously injured man from the more than 1,000 metres deep cave were extremely difficult".
"The fact that they still managed is a great success for the volunteer rescue workers."
Westhauser's employer, the Technology Institute of Karlsruhe, where he works in the applied physics department, expressed relief that the rescuers "with care and great personal commitment brought the difficult rescue to a happy end".
Bavaria's interior minister Joachim Herrmann proposed that the entrance to the cave be closed to the public "given the extreme danger".
Peters, the cave photographer, agreed, saying that "this is such a technically difficult cave that it must be reserved for professionals. Cave tourists should stay away. The thing to do is close it."