Tourists gathered by cave after spelunker pinned by rocks just 50m from entrance

Almost a century ago, the agonising death of a cave explorer became an unexpected tourist spectacle.

Floyd Collins, 37, was an experienced spelunker who had discovered and commercialised one of the many caverns of Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.

But his 1917 discovery, Crystal Cave, was remote and didn't get many visitors. He wanted to open up a new cave closer to the main road, and agreed on a plan with a neighbour to enlarge an entrance to Sand Cave.

Hoping the new cave would prove profitable, they entered a business partnership together.

While he'd been on many such expeditions before, on the fateful day of January 30, 1925, Floyd decided to head out alone — never a good idea for any adventurer.

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He managed to squeeze through several incredibly narrow passages into a large grotto, but had to leave in a hurry as his lamp was dying.

While squirming through a tunnel some 55 feet (17m) below ground, he accidentally knocked over the lamp, plunging himself into darkness.

What's more, he also dislodged a heavy rock weighing 26 pounds (11kg) which fell on his left leg, pinning him to the ground in the tight tunnel.

Floyd was utterly trapped just 150 feet (50m) away from the entrance and spent a miserable night alone in the pitch black.

The next day he was thankfully found by a friend, who was unable to dislodge him but brought him crackers to nibble on.

A rescue mission was launched and an electric light run down the passage to provide him with light and warmth.

For more than a week he lay there while rescuers attempted to free him. He was provided with food and water but efforts to dig him out were unsuccessful.

However what was going on just metres above Floyd's head was truly bizarre.

News of his predicament had spread far and wide and reporters had flocked to the cave entrance for what was one of the biggest unfolding stories in the world at the time.

Crowds of tourists also gathered in the hopes of witnessing a miraculous rescue. Eventually savvy vendors cottoned on to the potential profits and set up shop, selling food and goods to those who waited.

One journalist, named William Burke Miller, went even further and actually squeezed his way down the cave system to interview Floyd several times. Those stories would eventually go on to earn him a Pulitzer prize.

But on February 5, five days after Floyd was trapped, disaster struck. The tunnel collapsed and cut the spelunker off from his would-be rescuers.

They were forced to start the operation over again, frantically digging another shaft through the ground to reach the chamber behind the man.

When they finally burrowed back down to where he lay on February 17, Floyd had been dead for three or four days, likely of exposure and thirst.

It was deemed too difficult to extract his body, so a funeral service was held at the entrance to the cave. However Floyd's brother Homer Collins wasn't happy about his final resting place, and two months on from the disaster he and his friends reopened the shaft.

They eventually recovered his remains on April 23 and he was buried on the Collins family farm.

But the drama doesn't end there. Two years later Floyd's father Lee Collins sold the homestead and cave and the new owner made the bizarre decision to display the caver's embalmed body in a glass-topped coffin in Crystal Cave.

Visitors could peer in at Floyd next to a sign reading 'Greatest Cave Explorer Ever Known'.

In 1929 the body was stolen and later found in a nearby field, missing its left leg. After this Collins' remains were kept in a chained casket within Crystal Cave, which was closed to the public in 1961.

At the family's request Floyd's body was removed and re-interred at Mammoth Cave Baptist Church Cemetery in 1989, his final resting place.

Some believe the spelunker's spirit still haunts Mammoth Cave. According to a tour guide, a woman was once caving when she tripped and began to fall.

She felt someone grab her and pull her to safety, and assumed it was her partner — but then saw he was way on the other side of the cave.

This led her to believe it was the ghost of Floyd Collins who had come to her rescue.

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