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4 drown in cave

PROVO — Workers closed the opening of a cave using rocks and fresh concrete Thursday afternoon, hours after four hikers died inside a small, watery underground chamber on "Y" Mountain that they had jokingly nicknamed "The Cave of Death" the night before.

Crews found the bodies of two men and two women trapped in a narrow, underwater tunnel between two caverns just a few minutes' hike above the old Seven Peaks Golf Course. The hikers apparently became disoriented while trying to swim through the dark, underwater tunnel between the caverns.

Police identified the victims as J. Blake Donner, 24, of Springville; Jennifer Lynn Galbraith, 21, of Pleasant Grove; Scott K. McDonald, 28, of Provo; and Ariel Singer, 18, of Orem.

A preliminary report from the state medical examiner's office lists the cause of death for the four as drowning, said Lynnae Sanford, Provo police records supervisor.

Hours after they heard of their daughter's death, the parents of Jennifer Lynn Galbraith remained heartbroken but confident that their daughter was not alone.

"My parents have died," said Chris Galbraith, Jennifer's father. "And when I heard about Jennifer, the first thing I thought was that she's being greeted by them right now."

Galbraith credited his family's faith and a strong support system of family, friends and members of their LDS ward for helping them through the day.

"I'm grateful for our beliefs," he said. "We know we'll see her again."

Galbraith said he will always remember his daughter as a "fun-loving" kid who loved doing things with her friends.

"I take comfort in knowing she was doing something she loved, and she was with her friends," he said. "It just went bad."

The Galbraiths also fondly remembered Blake Donner, Jennifer's boyfriend.

"He was so thoughtful of his family," said Doris Galbraith, Jennifer's mother. "That's what I really respected about him."

Doris Galbraith works with Donner's mother, a single parent, at Utah Valley State College. She said Donner was an only child.

"I feel bad for us, but I feel even worse for her," Doris Galbraith said of Donner's mother. "I can't imagine what she's going through."

A friend described Donner as an artist, writer and singer in a rock band called Parallax. He was a student at UVSC and involved in the Food Not Bombs charity organization.

Jennifer Galbraith is survived by her parents, two sisters and one brother.

The young woman and her three friends began their fateful journey when they ventured into the foothills between the giant stone "Y" on Y Mountain and Seven Peaks Water Park at 3 a.m. Thursday accompanied by another friend, Joseph Ferguson, 26, of Reno, Nev. Ferguson decided against joining his friends when they crawled into the rocky mouth of the cave at about 4:30 a.m.

At a fork inside the cave the group would have followed a wet path that veered to the left and traveled another 50 feet before they reached a cavern with a hole in the ground leading to an underwater tunnel. The tunnel, about 15 feet long, led to another cavern.

Rescuers said the group apparently made it to the far cavern where they could pop their heads up through another hole and take a breath in the small space between the chest-high water and a 6-foot tapered ceiling. There was room in the cavern for up to eight people. Searchers believe based on the position of the bodies, the hikers ran into trouble while trying to swim back to the exit hole in the first cavern.

"They were all facing (the same direction)," said Lt. Dave Bennett of the Utah County Search and Rescue team. "We believe they went to the cavern and were on their way out."

Ferguson grew nervous after waiting 45 minutes for his friends to return. He began calling other friends who were familiar with the cave. He called police at 6:25 a.m.

Rescue crews began pumping water out of the cave and pumping oxygen back in to provide air for the victims if they were alive and running out of air. The pumping lowered the water level by 2 feet, allowing them to safely enter and begin searching. It was nearly four hours from the time of the call to police before searchers discovered the first body in the underwater tunnel.

Several searchers speculated the first body found, that of a female, might have blocked the way for the other three as they tried to get out. One of the three bodies was found on the floor of the tunnel, the other two bodies were found floating.

"People have got to understand it's a very dangerous environment," said Lt. Scott Finch of the Provo Police Department. "We want people to enjoy the caves and mountains, but they have to be prepared."

The hikers were found wearing sandals, with the two men in shorts and without shirts. Rescue crews used underwater breathing apparatuses, as well as wet suits and air monitors. They found one flashlight and some unlit candles but did not know whether the items belonged to the hikers. The bodies were taken to a local mortuary for identification by family members, then transported to the Medical Examiner's Office in Salt Lake City for autopsies.

"It's tough," Bennett said. "You want to go in and save a life."

He noted crews had to be careful, slow and methodical, so as to not endanger the lives of rescuers.

Four rescuers constantly manned the entrance to the cave, but as many as seven were involved when they had to move search equipment. Several emergency agencies were involved, including the Provo Police and Fire Mountain Rescue Team, Utah County Search and Rescue and the Department of Public Safety dive team, along with the Orem Fire Department Hazardous Materials Unit.

All four hikers lived in Utah County, and some had previously been in the cave.

Steve Hundley had dinner with the hikers the night before they left. That evening, one of the girls in the group started talking about the popular cave and how she passed out from the cold during a frightening previous experience, yet still made it out safely.

Hundley said the group then jokingly dubbed the cave, "The Cave of Death."

Hundley, 20, of Provo, said he would have gone to the cave Thursday morning as well but had to go to work. He had been in the cave a few times in the past and said the water is extremely cold.

Others who have explored the cave gathered around the area during the search and said it is easy to become disoriented and panic in the cave's underwater tunnel because it is such a small, dark space.

Brian Lamprey, 29, has been through the tunnel but said he was with experienced friends who helped guide him. He said while swimming back from the cavern, he missed the exit hole and ended up at a dead end several feet past the hole. By scooting backward, he was able to relocate the hole and get out.

Hikers who have visited the cave said there is a rope that traverses the tunnel to help explorers get through safely. One end is tied to a rock at the entrance and the other to a log in the small second cavern. The rope allows explorers to pull themselves along the tunnel, but if they lose the rope, the danger level rises, especially if the normally clear water becomes clouded by sediment stirred from the tunnel floor by explorers swimming through the tunnel, Lamprey said.

Contributing: Jennifer Dobner, Associated Press

E-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com, jtwitchell@desnews.com