Their bodies were bruised, they couldn’t stop shivering, and they had run out of food and water.

Lost for two full days inside the Mingo-Simmons cave in West Virginia, Heidi McWilliams and her four friends were desperate to see daylight. She held hands with two friends and prayed, yet again, that rescuers would find them.

Seconds later, she heard a faint voice. Help had arrived.

“I collapsed and started crying,” said McWilliams, 20, of York Springs, Pa. “I thought we were hearing things.”

McWilliams and her fellow explorers were treated for scrapes, bruises and minor sprains and returned to their homes in central Pennsylvania on Tuesday, a day after their rescue.

Safe at home, McWilliams and Dan Sampson, 25, of Dillsburg, Pa., recounted their ordeal in the 718-foot-deep cave, which is seven miles long and located about 130 miles east of Charleston.

No one panicked, they said in telephone interviews, but no one thought it would take more than 48 hours to get out.

The group entered sometime midday Saturday, either late in the morning or early in the afternoon — their memories differed.

Two of the most experienced spelunkers in the group — Jason Ross, 30, of Dillsburg and Skye Fisher, 20 of Newport, Pa. — had been there before. A year ago, some in the group had gone part of the way before turning around.

Sampson thought it would take no more than 10 hours to traverse.

The group left a car at the cave’s exit near Valley Head in Randolph County, and another at the entrance in Pocahontas County. They never signed into a log that recorded names and times of entry into the cave, said Lt. Kelly Bostian of Shavers Fork Fire Rescue.

Things were going smoothly until 10 hours into the trip, when they took a wrong turn in the labyrinth of underground tunnels. They had stumbled into a large room in the cave in which most of the routes in and out led back to the same place.

“We were in a maze,” Sampson said.

Authorities got their first call after the owner of the property on which one of the cave entrances sits noticed the group’s car still parked outside late Saturday night. Bostian and two other rescuers made their first foray in about 11:15 p.m. that night.

By 1 a.m. Sunday, the explorers stopped and regrouped. Twelve hours into the journey and they were out of food.

At times over the next 36 hours, two would venture out at a time to find an exit and try to stay in contact with the others by yelling. Cell phones don’t work underground.

Unaware that rescuers were already on scene, Sampson thought worried family members would surely have called for help by 2 a.m. Fisher and Krall, who are engaged, were due to check in with family because they were meeting Krall’s parents around 6 a.m. in West Virginia.

But the first rescuers had turned back, in part because they couldn’t fit through a narrow part of the cave. They also followed protocol that called for rescuers without underground communications to turn back after three to four hours to ensure they were not in trouble themselves.

“Evidently, we were only yards from the victims when we had to turn back,” Bostian said.

Inside, the friends tried to take turns resting, using only their backpacks to shield them from the cold floor. For water, they would find puddles in rock crevices or lick droplets off the ceiling.

Temperatures hovered around 50 degrees. McWilliams wore a cotton T-shirt, activewear pants that helped wick away moisture and overalls. The group was stuck in an area where they could stand and move around, and their lights still worked.

Sleeping became difficult because of the temperatures.

“If I had known we were going to be there 48 hours, I would have worn more,” McWilliams said.

With one route blocked, rescuers decided to work their way back from the exit at 4 a.m. Sunday, but still found nothing.

“That’s when we thought that we had a big rescue effort,” said Valley Head Volunteer Fire Chief Randall Ware, who coordinated efforts on the ground.

Then, another temporary setback occurred when Ross and Fisher got lost after venturing out at the 32-hour mark to find an exit. They returned eight hours later.

“For us, that was depressing and we lost a little bit of hope,” Sampson said.

Members of the National Cave Rescue Commission arrived from West Virginia and four other states, and State Police, the Red Cross and the Salvation Army were also on scene. Rescuers used wired radios to stay in contact.

Finally, after several failed attempts, the five were found about 11:30 a.m. Monday.

It took about four hours before all were out of the cave, with Keri Krall, 21, of Shippensburg, Pa., needing help out by rescuers because of her injuries. She suffered bruised ribs and a knee injury, her friends said.

Emergency workers showered the explorers with clothing, water, sports drinks and granola bars.

Krall was flown to Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown to be treated. The other four were picked up by family members at a hospital in Elkins.

They feasted at Pizza Hut and scarfed down Mountain Dew for dinner before arriving home.

“I felt so grateful,” Heidi McWilliams said. “Seeing everyone there, it was so awesome to see. They handled it so well.”

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