History of the Hungarian Cave Rescue Service (BMSZ - 1961-2011)

Compilation on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the founding of BMSz

written by Péter Taródi - Zsuzsa Szittner - website import: András Hegedűs (Juju) - Pictures: BMSZ archive

Foundation of the Hungarian Cave Rescue Service (BMSZ)

The cave rescue service was called to life by real LIFE.


The Hungarian Cave Rescue service was literally called to life by real LIFE. There is no other such  metropolis, not a city on the globe, inside which there are several, multiple kilometres long caves – accessible by public transport. Moreover, the thermal caves under Buda form a labyrinthine system of passages. It is no wonder that in the 1930’s the original name of the cave in Matyas-mountain was Firefighter-cave (Tuzolto-barlang), as the adventurers, often getting lost underground, needed to be rescued by the fire brigade. The known length of this cave increased by ten times following the explorations in 1948, but the original passage is still called Firefighter – passage (Tuzolto-ag).

The cave rescue team starts to search for a lost tramper in the cave of Ferenc-hill in the ’60-s

Following the recovery from the war in the 1950’s, the search for caves again increased. A significant milestone of this era was the re-foundation of the Hungarian Karst – and Cave Research Society (MKBT) in 1958, but a vibrant caving culture formed within the Hungarian Friends of Nature Association . Meanwhile unorganized trampers – being interested in underground adventures – have visited the cave labyrinths more and more frequently, unaware of the life-threatening hazards.

Driven by curiosity, tourists did not mind scrambling through the weak iron gates of the cave’s entrance. Cave entrances were often severely damaged, and they ended up being left unrepaired, allowing access into the caves for everyone. It is no surprise that tourists got lost underground more and more often.

As the extensive caves were no longer known by the fire brigade, who else could have been approached by the Police but the cavers – who were regularly exploring underground. After a short time, an official alert system was set up. The most active cavers organised themselves into a rescue team and kept the equipment necessary for a rescue available. Further increases in the number of accidents highlighted the need for a formalised rescue team. The development into an organisation was so successful that the name of the Hungarian Cave Rescue Service has been present in the media since 1960.

Interestingly, a false alarm gave the organisation of the Service a final push. In mid-April 1961 a call has been received reporting two missing students. Following the unsuccessful initial searches, all available cavers have been mobilized. Over an entire week more than a hundred people had been searching all the caves – with persistent zeal, but decreasing hope. The rescue, which required a wide range of organisation and coordinated management, had finally been closed, as the students -who had defected to Yugoslavia – had been found. They had intentionally left false evidence behind, indicating that they had disappeared in a cave.


Gyorgy Denes Dr. amongst cavers and police officers

However, the lessons of the event were that such a significant rescue could be expected at any time, therefore a higher level of availability and organisation needed to be established. They agreed that the new organisation would be hosted by the Hungarian Cave – and Karst Research Society. As it’s general secretary at the time was Dr. Gyorgy Denes, he became the head of the Rescue Service. Janos Palankai also had a key role in the formation of an official foundation.

Although no-one noted the exact day of the foundation, it is certain that in the last days of April 1961 the Hungarian Cave Rescue Service was already in existence.

We don’t know whether there were functionally independent cave rescue organisations in other  European countries in those days, but if they did exist, they may not have had too many members.

The first two decades (1961 – 1980)

Becoming a formal organisation gave a major push to further development. Social recognition and the media attention was influential, both internally and externally. By the mid 1960’s we had access to a spacious storage facility and, as a result of lots of lobbying. We were able to set up a more and more modern stock of equipment. Official calls had been organised to be frictionless. For our operations, the necessary transport vehicles, communication facilities, and support had always been provided by the Police. This was organised in such a way that they never needed to be involved in the professional management and execution of the rescue operations. In exchange we provided  support for non-cave related calls, such as searching for missing people, searches in rough terrain, technical solutions for special cases and management of crime scenes. Our skills were used by the Civil Defence as well as the Fire brigade. We had set up a regular training programme which provided us with several organisational and operational experiences which we could use to improve our methodology. Unfortunately by mid 60’s, our organisational affiliation had become unstable as the MKBT - our host organisation - had lost it’s government supervisory body. In those days it was impossible to become an independent association, so we had to look for a new umbrella organisation, which we found in the form of the Hungarian Red Cross. This was a fruitful collaboration over the next two decades.


Renowned cave explorers of the period, 1968

During the twenty or so years since the foundation, major tasks had been searches for missing and lost people. Along with these, there had been more seriously injured casualties, whose transportation to the surface was a major technical challenge.

We were not lacking support, as it was prestigious within the caving community if someone were to earn membership to the Rescue Service. We had the ability to select our members carefully. In addition to the outstanding caving, technical skills and experience, high emphasis was placed on altruism and unlimited availability for rescue. A peculiarity of the age is that we had to refuse several, technically excellent cavers as they did not have a telephone and therefore were not easily reachable.

Analysing the cases themselves, the necessity for transforming into an organisation was quickly justified. Following a couple of routine searches in caves, in the autumn of 1961 we intervened in a situation which almost turned into a tragedy. A team, consisting of two secondary school age teens and a twenty year old young adult went missing for several days. As the young adult had previously attempted to cross the border illegally, and due to the similarities with the earlier case, the authorities did not take the evidence they might be lost in a cave seriously enough.

Luckily, by this time the existence of the Cave Rescue Service was already publicly known, therefore a friend of the missing boys had directly approached our Service, assuring us that it was likely they had gone caving, as it had happened before. Following a short discussion not only had the presumption been justified, but a few locations had also been mentioned, based on which it was possible to identify which caves the boys had visited earlier. In the fourth hour after the urgent alert, the boys were found in the cave of the Matyas-mountain, more than six days after going underground, and getting hopelessly lost. They went with a single flash light, which broke when they dropped it. They went through unbelievable suffering during their six days in the darkness. They were hypothermic,  and had been struggling even more due to a lack of water, although they did not totally dehydrate thanks to the humid air in the cave. In their condition, they were already trying to drink their own urine, but it made their condition even worse. They were helped by their ingenuity, as they had heard dripping water in the silence of the cave. With tiring groping they finally found the source of the noise, tore their pockets out, filled them with mud and put them below the drips. After a long time, when enough water was absorbed, they squeezed the collected water into their mouths. By the time we found them they have already given up on their survival. According to their own time calculations a week had past already. This was the time-frame in which they thought other cavers could have found them. They knew they would not survive an additional week. They spent more than a month in hospital getting back to full health. We deemed important to share the details of this story, to illustrate a situation where people needed help and the importance of a rescue for which the availability of capable volunteers is a must.

Still in the founding year, a woman who suffered a spinal injury as a result of a fall had to be transported to the surface of the newly discovered Meteor-cave In addition to the serious injuries, we had to deal with the challenging environment of the cave. Luckily the woman fully recovered and shortly after became a proud mother.

In 1969, also from Meteor-cave, we transported a fallen and seriously injured caver in coma.  We could solve the transportation challenges from the deepest part of the cave as his condition had not worsened. Unfortunately, the hospital treatment could not help him, and two months later, he passed away.


The rescue team following the transportation of the dead bodies found in the Ferenc-hegyi cave, 1975.

The danger of getting lost in caves was highlighted by a tragedy in 1975. Four youngsters got lost, and no one missed them as they had set a precedent on previous occasions. Although there were signs of them going caving, the information did not reach us. Their dead bodies were transported to the surface from the Ferenc-hegyi cave once they had been found, six weeks after getting lost.

Their commitment to stay together during their hopeless rambling deserves respect. They were found huddled together. Their attitude was exemplary.

There have certainly been more pleasant rescues as well. In the Ordoglyuk (Devil Hole) cave in the Solymar area, two separate teams got lost at the same time. They found each other, but realised neither of them knew the way out. They quickly figured out that many of their relatives were aware of where they went. They were found by following the noise of their singing in the cave.

The continuation.. (1980 – 2003)

The 1980’s brought significant changes in the life of the rescue service. Using the opportunity for easier travel abroad, members were sent to Zakopane, Poland to participate in the 4th meeting of the International Union of Speleology (UIS). Because of being bi-lingual and his organisational skills, Dr. Gyorgy Denes was a key participant of the conference.  As a result of his participation, Hungary was tasked with organising the 5th conference in 1983, and Dr. Denes was appointed secretary of the Caver Rescue Commission of the UIS. (Later on Dr. Denes became chairman and honorary president of the Union). Following a short discussion, we accepted the task and appointed the location in Aggtelek.


Stretcher transportation exercise

Although our decision was not free from risk, we had to take the opportunity. We could not leave the UIS facing uncertainty, and we did not want another country – no doubt promising their services – to take this unique opportunity from us. The fact that we could not consult with any professional bodies prior, let alone the affected political decision makers could have lead to serious problems.

We were aware that the international role, especially a charitable one, was not against the prevailing political attitude of the time. Although failing to discuss this before the decision had been made could have caused offence to many decision makers, which could have put our service at a disadvantage.

Later, applying tactics compatible with the spirit of those times, we successfully dealt with the hazards. Although our hosting organisation, the Hungarian Red Cross – not believing in the success of the event – only participated as co – organisers. Therefore we appointed the Hungarian Karst and Cave Research Society and the Hungarian Friends of Nature Association  as main organisers.


Rescue of a person who suffered shoulder injuries from the cave of Matyas-hegy, 2007.

Not only did we have to organise the conference, but traditionally the cave rescue team of the host country had to come up with a rescue exercise which, as a separate program, was strictly assessed by the international participants. As a basic requirement, in addition to the professional excellence, the exercise had to introduce modern or even new rescue techniques.

A task like this required a very striking, experienced and well-equipped rescue team. In 1979-80 our Service could not have fulfilled all these criteria. 

The late 70’s and early 80’s brought changes in our lives. The techniques applied for accessing vertical caves went through fundamental changes, which in turn had effects on the rescue techniques as well. By locking the cave entrances, the earlier search and rescue scenarios were superseded by more rare, but occasionally more serious accidents. Even though caving is no more dangerous than any other sport or travel activity, casualties of an underground accident might require a much longer time and significantly more effort to be transported to a hospital. Therefore a high level of technical knowledge is a strict requirement for the rescue service. Prevention of accidents is equally important, as the best scenario is if an accident does not happen.


Rescue of fallen paraglider from Harmashatar-mountain, 2008.

The aforementioned challenges – coupled with further internal fragmentation necessitated the organisation’s restructure.

Our activity had been functionally divided: the day to day running of the Rescue Service (headed by the Chairman), while the rescues were lead by an operative coordinator in line with the hierarchy.

We recruited new, young members, organised entrance exams, and then started their training.  Only the existing members who were able to fulfil the new requirements were kept on the front line.


Last reconciliation before the rescue, Naszaly-sinkhole, 1995.

For accident prevention purposes we set up cave tour guides, then technical and basic training. Based on the safety principles which had been formulated for the courses, we prepared the Safety Regulations of Caving.

In 1983, in cooperation with the Hungarian Karst and Cave Research Society, the Hungarian Speleological Training System was implemented, which included the existing training and the new cave exploration course as well.

We organised the 5th Cave Rescue World Congress based on the above fundamentals, which was a resounding success. With the high number of cave trips, the diversity of the programs, the overall good mood, and the high quality of hospitality. Almost all leaders of cave rescue organisations worldwide visited the conference, from whom we learned a lot. At the 1987 International Cave Rescue Conference in Italy, aside from the hosts, the number of Hungarian participants was by far the highest.

The next event was the Annual Congress for 1989 of the International Speleological Union, hosted by the Hungarian Karst and Cave Research Society in Budapest. Within the congress, we organised the independent symposium for the Cave Rescue Commission. We were responsible for the security of the caving trips. Hearing the delighted anecdotes round the camp fire on the closing event, we felt that the event was successful. Nothing is more natural, that within the congress, we organised an individual symposium for the Cave Rescue Commission. In addition, we were responsible for the safety of the caving trips.

We are proud to remember that next to the campfire on the last evening, within cheerful singing, everyone was talking about their experiences from the rescue exercise in the cave of Matyas-hegy. Everyone, even the scholar Chairman of the Union had been carrying the stretcher there. (We carried a person of reasonable weight in the stretcher during all exercises, as big mistakes are not allowed, even on an exercise). Our program contributed to cave rescue gaining further attention within the Union.


Rescue from a rock wall. The victim wouldn’t have lasted long, holding onto the wall at 40 m height - luckily the rescue service arrived quickly, 2010 Dobogoko.

In the second half of the 80’s, we felt the heat coming. Our mother organisation, the Hungarian Red Cross decided on separating the organisation, and a geographical merging of the different rescue activities - without asking anyone affected. This would have resulted in the termination of the cave rescues. As our appeals - based on professional reasoning - fell on deaf ears, we declared that the Cave Rescue Service seceded from its mother organisation. As a result, we lost most of our equipment. Luckily the Magyar Termeszetbarat Szovetseg (Hungarian Friends of Nature Association) were able to host us.

As a result of the change, we registered a new association, the Hungarian Cave Rescue Service -  a cessionary of the Cave Rescue Service founded in 1961. When the legal changes allowed, we became a public benefit organisation (Hungarian legal category, for special non-profit organisations fulfilling predominantly social-support tasks).


 We also remained members of the Magyar Termeszetbarat Szovetseg (Hungarian Friends of Nature Association) and the Hungarian Karst and Cave Research Society. By renewing the cooperation agreements, we deepened our ties with the Police, National Ambulance Service and the Disaster Recovery Service. In order to improve our response time in rescues, we founded regional units in Northern and Southern Hungary.


Transporting the body of a casualty fallen from a rock face, Dobogoko, 2010.

Cave rescues from this period have not yet been mentioned. We reacted to calls promptly and helped causalities to the surface within the shortest possible time and with the highest level of caution.

They all took place without significant deterioration in their health. We would like to mention a few interesting and instructive cases here.

A boy who got stuck could only be freed by cutting his clothes off with scissors so he could fit through the squeeze. Although the story sounds a bit funny, it was quite serious, as by the time he was out his limbs had started to exhibit serious symptoms of insufficient of circulation.

The other case was unprecedented. We were alerted, via two different channels to a caving accident. We only learned upon arriving to the scene that there have been two separate accidents in the same cave, just a few minutes apart. The two affected teams we not aware of each other. Shaking off our astonishment we quickly solved both issues with the cooperation of local supporters.

Another case spookily reminded us of a previous event. Three men got lost in a cave, the entrance of which had been broken up and no-one knew they were there. Three days after they had been reported as being lost, and as a result of our own research, we figured out where to search for them. The search soon lead to us finding only two of them. We learned from the extremely exhausted men that their third companion, with all his remaining strength and the remaining lights, had left them behind to try seek help. We were particularly concerned that he succeeded in getting out of the cave, because he would have had only a marginal chance of surviving the cold and snowy night on the surface in the difficult surrounding terrain. We suspended the search in the cave and started to look for him on the surface, but were unsuccessful. We finally returned to the cave, and as a result of long search, we found him in a previously unknown corner, in total darkness. We could only hear his swooning voice when we were very close. He welcomed us with the happiness of a person having returned from his grave.


Following the 20 hours of underground transportation, the casualty finally reaches the surface from cave Valea Rea in Romania. The rescuers still had to carry the stretcher for 8 kms to the ambulance. 2007.

Another memorable case was when a Hungarian cave explorer suffered an open leg fracture as a result of a fall at a great depth, far from the entrance. In that area of Romania there was no sufficient cave rescue, therefore we took the case on ourselves. Luckily, the Romanian authorities were helpful so we got through the border quickly. We cooperated excellently with the local rescuers. Despite this, the rescue was still extremely difficult.

The challenging terrain on the surface  made the rescue of the seriously injured man from the challenging cave even more difficult. The entrance, was only accessible via a several kilometre long walk, nights were cold, slopes leading to the entrance were steep and slippery and all these had to be navigated on the way out, while taking care of the casualty, who, together with the rescuers, was exposed to several hazards on the surface as well as in the cave. 

In the given environment and circumstances, the doctors identified the injury as life-threatening and saw no hope in preserving the injured leg. Later in the hospital it was revealed that he was within an inch of dying. However, following a long process, our friend finally recovered. Later, similar to some others who had been rescued, he has become a cave rescuer. In the meantime the rescue service in Romania, with sufficient government funding has gone through significant improvements. The cooperation between us has remained excellent ever since.

In a sorrowful event, we could only transport the dead body of a cave diver, who had carried out explorations, to the surface. Later we learned he died before we had been alerted for the rescue.

The largest rescue event in the country also took place in this period. It happened in Rakoczi Cave, where we successfully rescued a cave diver, 118 hours after his accident. I will not go into detail here, because in addition to the extensive publicity, a book has also been published about this rescue.

Two circumstances might still be worth to highlighting. The success of the rescue of the diver having been lost in the muddy water, was the result of unbelievable international cooperation, where everyone contributed their best -  their best knowledge, power, gear and any resources which were needed in order to succeed. Although the Hungarian Cave Rescue Service coordinated the rescue, and served as the core of the operation, it would not have been a success without the international assistance. No-one judged where the helpers came from or where they belonged, only their abilities were assessed and whether they could help achieve the goals of the rescue. There was no differentiation between government and non-governmental organisations, teams or individuals. It was one of those rare moments where self-interests did not prevail. If, even seldomly, something like that appeared, a glance was enough to make it disappear.  Those who came with a different attitude left quickly. Those who purely wanted to help, stayed, in unity. The press often asked how much the rescue operation cost, which we never really answered. We have never summarized the costs, as it made no sense. We demonstrated, where ever someone is in danger, they can count on help, as long as it is physically possible. Zsolt Szilagyi, the rescued diver believed in help. It is impossible to imagine what he had to go through in order to survive. He was probably kept alive by his trust, which was also necessary for the success of the rescue.


Recent history… (2003-2011)

The year 2003 brought in a new generation for BMSZ. The operative leadership, as well as majority of the members changed, which is a natural phenomenon in the life of such an organisation. In addition to the cave rescues, an increasing demand has been placed on rescues in other areas. To adapt, we modernized our cooperation agreements with authorities. We have been participating with the Budapest Central Rescue Service.

Rescue exercise in the Naszaly - cave, 2006.

Both at home and internationally we had proven our ability to cooperate with authorities. We maintained cooperation agreements with the Alarm Centre of National Police Headquarters, the Directorate for Disaster Management, the Magyar Termeszetbarat Szovetseg (Hungarian Friends of Nature Association) and the Hungarian Karst - and Cave Research Society.

We also maintained a close relationship with the cave rescue section of the UIS.  Uniquely, we earned the opportunity to organize the international cave rescue conference for a second in 2007. Considering the fond memories of the UIS, we chose the previous location in Aggtelek. Guests arrived from 27 countries, from all around the world and the event was a great success. The professional results were even more significant. Representatives of the participating countries drafted recommendations about the methodology of cave rescues, which was verified and implemented by the UIS in their following meeting. Therefore the recommendations formulated in Hungary dubbed the “Aggtelek declaration” for the cavers all around the world. However, it’s importance is more significant than the geographical origins, as it set out directives for the voluntary civil services specialized in rescues to maintain their relationships with the government. For us, it was another vindication of our goals. 

We had been trying to facilitate international cooperation in rescue exercises, utilizing our diverse multi-national relationships. There have been good examples for such cooperation in the past.


Technical display on the 11th International Cave Rescue Conference organised by the Hungarian Cave rescue Service in 2007.

Our cooperation strengthened and commonly organised events became more frequent with Slovakian and Romanian cave and mountain rescue teams. In 2009 we held an international regional rescue exercise, with the participation of Polish, Slovakian and Romanian rescue teams.

The event was so successful,  the Serbian and Austrian cave rescue teams showed interest in future cooperation. Since then we have had a cooperation agreement for rescues with the Bihar county region of the Romanian mountain and cave rescue team.

In order to standardize the methodology of cave rescues and to ensure safety of the rescuers, we set out and implemented the professional regulatory framework for cave rescue, which was approved by all parties.

We resolutely consider it as one of our important roles to contribute to the prevention of cave accidents. Our members regularly train cavers, from the basics to the highest levels. Our statistics prove that regular training, together with high quality safety standards have significantly reduced the number of accidents.

Regarding the rescue activity of the past years, we have more and more often been approached to execute rescues on the surface for injured or missing trampers.


A little girl found following an entire night missing, Pilis mountains, 2007.

In a range of non-cave rescues, there was a remarkable case, where we found three little schoolgirls, who became lost in the Pilis mountains. They were found after an all night search, more than 10kms from the place they initially got lost. They were home sunrise.

We would like to mention those members of the team who are no longer with us and can’t celebrate with us. We lost five extraordinary friends in accidents, all of them abroad. In two cases the accidents happened while caving, while the other three of them had mountaineering accidents. We lost several members due to illnesses. We keep them in our thoughts.

Finally, we would like to emphasize the pledge we made 50 years ago which the Hungarian Cave Rescue Team approved and incorporated into the Constitution document:

’... we make all possible efforts for the search and rescue of people injured or lost or having otherwise suffered life-threatening accidents. We willingly undertake the necessary discipline, the challenges and dangers of the service. “

We reaffirm this for the upcoming 50 years, when we will undertake our responsibilities.


The Hungarian Cave Rescue Service...

...has successfully done all its operations during its more than 50 years of existence.

...has saved the lives of nearly five hundred people.

...performs all its tasks in voluntary work.