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Three teens die in caves along Mississippi River

St. Paul, Minn. — (AP) - A teenager rescued from a complex of caves along the Mississippi River struggled to survive Wednesday, a day after three of his friends died of apparent carbon monoxide poisoning in the cavern.

The two boys and a girl died while exploring a complex known as the Wabasha Street caves. A fourth teenager who was rescued was in serious condition, police said.

Another boy, who escaped the cave on his own and alerted authorities, was taken to a hospital and released.

The source of the fumes was not immediately known, but one official said cave visitors sometimes start fires. Rescue workers found the teens about 600 feet into the caves.

Police identified the teens who died as Nicholas Lee Larson, 17, and Natalie Lorraine Vanvorst, 17, both of Savage, and Patrick Gerard Dague, 17, of Burnsville. The names of the boy who escaped and of the 17-year-old boy who was hospitalized were not released.

Police said the teens went to the caves to explore after learning about them from friends. The teens did reportedly see a sign that warned of the dangers posed by the caves and advising of the deaths of two other teenagers in 1992.

The boy who alerted officials said he briefly lost consciousness and fumbled in darkness before he saw light peering from a hole and found his way out.

"I woke up and tried to find some way to get out," said the teen, who did not want his name used.

Emergency workers managed to resuscitate a second boy. Fire Chief Douglas Holton said Wednesday on NBC's "Today" that the boy was "fighting for his life" in a hospital's hyperbaric chamber as doctors tried to lower the level of carbon monoxide in his system.

A hospital spokeswoman declined to provide further information.

The Wabasha Street caves are a large network that lies across the Mississippi from downtown St. Paul. Fire officials said the complex extends for miles along the river.

Holton said the teens entered through a small opening about 3 by 5 feet. Once inside, they could stand up, he said.

He said the cave complex has so many entrances it's impossible to completely seal it off from the public.

"There are entrances and exits that we don't even know of," Holton said.

"The caves are used by a lot of people," Holton said. "Unfortunately, a lot of people start fires. That carbon monoxide just sits there."

The entrance to the cave where the teens died was blocked Wednesday with sandstone boulders, dirt and fresh-cut logs. Three individually wrapped roses were laid near the site's entrance.

A glance at the area showed the difficulty of cutting off access to the caves. A well-worn path leads past numerous entrances, many of which showed new evidence of the city's attempt to seal them with plywood and piles of sand. But a person could easily shimmy through, and the sandstone material brushed away easily. Recent fire remains could be seen near the entrance of one cave.

Authorities don't think the teens started a fire, Holton said. There was no smoke in the cave, and the teens had flashlights, he said.

It's not the first time people have died exploring the caves.

In 1992, Annie Fries and Jill Huntington, both 17, also died of carbon monoxide poisoning, prompting the city to place a plaque at an entrance to the caves warning of the dangers of going inside.

"Somebody else is going to go through what we went through 12 years ago, and it's got to stop," Connie Lietzau, Fries' mother, told KARE-TV on Tuesday.

Three other people have also died since 1988, one from drowning, one from a fire and one in a cave collapse.

But the caves and their rich tradition have attracted many curious youths over the years.

A local brewery once dug some of the caverns to create earthen warehouses, and a mushroom-growing operation flourished in the moist, dark caves for decades. The caves even hosted a nightclub in the 1930s, the Castle Royal, and mobsters and big-name entertainers were said to frequent the spot.

Mayor Randy Kelly said city officials will continue trying to keep young people out of the caves. But he said the rock is so soft it's a challenge.

"You can take a car key and in five minutes dig a hole with it," Kelly told WCCO Radio of Minneapolis. "So you plug these holes up where kids dig in and they simply just dig around them and go in, anyway."

One onlooker at the scene late Tuesday, Nick Severson, doubted they would succeed. Severson, a 34-year-old cab driver, said he had been going into the caves since he was 13. Kids will always find a way in, he said.

As parks employees worked in the background to close up the cave, Severson motioned over his shoulder and said, "It ain't going to matter. You come back here in two weeks, whatever he's doing will be gone."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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