Oscar Hackett Neil Moss was an Oxford undergraduate who loved sports and exploring.
One of his passions was cave diving, and on March 22, 1959, Neil, as he was known, joined a group from the British Speleological Association on an expedition deep under the grounds of Derbyshire.
The eight cavers were intending to explore a narrow passage in Stalagmite Chamber in Peak Cavern, one of England’s best known cave systems. The new passage had been discovered just two weeks before.
That fateful Sunday, the explorers crawled their way through muddy passages until they came to a chamber some 1,000ft below ground. The chamber led to an incredibly narrow vertical shaft.
Despite being six feet tall Moss was slim, and so he was the first to enter the shaft.
Four other cavers had already inspected the area and knew the passage was 40ft deep with a tricky corkscrew twist in the middle.
Moss worked his way down where it’s believed he discovered a boulder in a slight recess partially blocking the way. His attempts to shift it failed and so his team dropped a rope down to pull him back up.
That’s where the trouble started. Moss managed to tie the rope to himself, but he was simply too heavy. They tried multiple times to hoist him up and each time the rope snapped.
In what was likely a moment of panic, Moss contorted his body in such a way that he was now jammed even tighter just below the corkscrew part of the shaft. He was “sandwiched in an elliptical slit only eighteen inches wide”, according to the 1988 book Race Against Time.
“Suddenly from some forty feet below came the terrible, factual statement: ‘I say, I’m stuck, I can’t budge an inch’,” Sports Illustrated reported at the time.
The passage was so restricted that Moss couldn’t move his legs up far enough to reach the rungs of the ladder. His arms were also trapped by his sides and he was unable to flex his elbows in order to pull himself up to the rung above him.
He asked his fellow cavers to pull the ladder back up while he clung to it, and they managed to lift it a small distance before it jammed.
Despite having a ladder before him and a team of cavers above, Moss was completely stuck inside the passage.
Another problem was emerging. Moss’ body was blocking the shaft’s air flow and the atmosphere was quickly becoming polluted with carbon dioxide. While the group tried to work out what to do, it was clear Moss was disoriented due to lack of oxygen.
The book The Honour of being human describes him as acting “less cooperative” over time, seeming “unconcerned about the seriousness of his plight” and even suggesting to the others “that they go out and eat”.
The entire group was now suffering from carbon dioxide poisoning, with three losing consciousness. By this point the alarm had been raised and a rescue operation was in full swing.
At midnight some slim tanks of oxygen were sent down the shaft in the hopes they might revive Moss, but rescuers had to keep returning to the surface due to the “foul air”.
Compressed air cylinders pumped oxygen down the shaft in an attempt to blow the carbon dioxide out.
Meanwhile other cavers tried tunnelling through to the shaft in the hopes they’d come out below Moss and pull him to safety, but sadly their attempts proved futile.
A call was put out for an experienced caver small enough to make it through the shaft, and June Bailey, an 18-year-old from Manchester, turned up to try to help.
Media reports from the time claim she was instructed to break Moss’ collarbones in order to free his shoulders should it prove necessary. She gave it her best effort, but was unable to get him out.
By Monday afternoon, almost 24 hours after the expedition began, Moss’ laboured breathing could be heard but he appeared as just an “indistinct muddy blockage” far below his rescuers.
Heavy rain was threatening to flood the cave system and everyone was forced to temporarily abandon the rescue mission. When they came back they could no longer hear Moss breathing.
An RAF doctor declared the young man dead in the early hours of Tuesday morning, despite not being able to actually see his body.
Neil’s dad Eric Moss, who had been waiting for news at the tunnel entrance, was devastated – but requested his son be left where he was so that no other lives were put at risk.
The lower shaft was then sealed with loose rocks.
The mission attracted worldwide attention and some of the key figures of the rescue mission were given awards in recognition of their bravery.
New safety procedures for cave rescue missions were put in place following the tragedy, and there were even calls for spelunking to be made illegal in the UK.
Stalagmite Chamber is now named Moss Chamber in memory of the young caver who lost his life in pursuit of adventure.