incident at Devil's Icebox Cave

ACA 1973 page 18
2nd Dec 1973
Devil's Icebox Cave
Incident type
Primary cause
Capsized canoe
Secondary cause
Group type
Group size
Aid type
Underground aid
Incident flags
Data status

Injured cavers

Name Age Sex Injuries Injured areas
Strader, Robert Dean 28 Male Fatality Not recorded
Cook Jr, David 19 Male Fatality Not recorded

Incident report

After obtaining the necessary permits from officials of Rockbridge State Park, 19 cavers from the Chiluk-ki (at University of Missouri at St. Louis) and Chouteau Grottos began an expedition into Devil's Icebox Cave at 10:00 a.m. Robert Dean Strader (28) was the leader of the expedition since he was considered the most experienced member of the party and had been in the cave numerous times. It was necessary to canoe into the cave. Since only three canoes were available to the group, it was decided that one party of 12 would enter first, drop off 6 cavers and return for the remaining 7.

Strader and David Cook. Jr. (19) were returning to the entrance in the last canoe. No effort was made to keep the canoes together and at times they were up to 500 feet apart. Because of the curving passage, the canoes were out of visual and audible contact. At about 12:30 p.m. the occupants of the second canoe heard indistinguishable noises followed by silence. When they returned to investigate they recovered the overturned wooden canoe of Strader and Cook, the paddles, one helmet, and one glove. No one saw the canoe capsize.

"They returned into the cave hoping to find Strader and Cook. Soon they were met by the cavers already in the cave and decided to return to the entrance. In returning they met the first canoe with people coming back into the cave. Since there were now only two canoes and eleven cavers in the cave, it took until 3:30 p.m. to retrieve the cavers back to the entrance. The first group out reported the accident to the authorities and at 5:30 p.m. rescuers returned with the bodies of the two drowned victims.

"Death was attributed to drowning. Apparently the canoe capsized and due to the water temperature of 52 F, the amount of clothing, and the darkness, the two were unable to save themselves. The depth in the area of the accident varies from 3 to 12 feet, although the bottom is silt and soft mud. Robert Strader was a member of Chouteau Grotto and the NSS. He had been an active caver for 8 to 10 years and was also an expert canoeist and knew how to swim, although not exceptionally. David Cook had been caving several months and was a member of UMSL Grotto. His ability to swim was not known." (Kirk)

Analysis: It is impossible to say what caused the canoe to upset.

"Suggestions to the NSS Safety Committee on what should be done to avoid similar situations:

(1) Life preservers would have prevented the drownings. They may be cumbersome at times but think of the consequences - please.

(2) The trip should not have been attempted as there were not enough boats available, i.e. avoid ferrying technique.

(3) Each canoe should keep visual and audible contact with canoe in front and one behind." (Kruesi)

"Concerning life jackets, no one ever used life jackets in the cave for the entire history of the cave. Much of the water passage is only inches deep and there are only three or four places deep enough to drown. It is very likely that no accident of this type will ever occur again in the cave in a place where it would not be possible to stand. However, since life jackets are now required, it is unlikely that an occurrence could be fatal.

"Other than life jackets, canoes may also be a problem. Canoes have long been used in Devil's Icebox without mishap. Generally however the people using the canoes owned the canoes and had experience with them. Strader was not a good canoeist and it is very likely that Cook had no canoeing experience. The ease with which a canoe can overturn in inexperienced and even experienced hands may be an important contributing factor. Rubber boats generally, on the other hand, are almost impossible to turn over." (Hargrove)

Sources: Report by Gene Hargrove.

Report by Carol Kruesi.


Kirk, Robert H., Jr. (1973) "Devil's Icebox Disaster." MSS Liaison.

Anon. (1973) "Two Students Drown in Park near Columbia." St. Louis Globe Democrat. 4 December 1973.

Baskin, Carol. (1973) "Deaths Called 'Freaky', Shallow Water Near." Columbia Daily Tribune. 3 December 1973.

Cassaway, Bob M. (1973) "Two Drown in Devil's Icebox Cave." Columbia Daily Tribune. 3 December 1973.

(The above four articles were reprinted in Ozark Speleograph. Vol. 41, No. 1.)

Anon. (1973) "County Youth. Companion Drown in Canoeing Accident in Cave." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 4 December 1973.


MSS Liaison.

St. Louis Globe Democrat 12/4/73.

Columbia Daily Tribune 12/3/73.

Ozark Speleograph Vol. 41 No1.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch 12/4/73.

This record was last updated on 18th Nov 2023 at 00:30 UTC.