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For 16 years, local man’s wallet was buried in one of Watertown’s caves

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The last time Joseph P. Sweet saw his wallet was in 1996, when he left it behind in a cave under the Veterans Memorial Riverwalk after he and a friend became lost and had to be rescued.

On Saturday, Mr. Sweet, now 36, will be getting the wallet back — with all of its contents.

A group of cave explorers from Western New York found the dingy-looking black wallet Saturday during an exploration of the caves, an intricate underground maze of crevices. They plan to make sure the chain wallet gets back to the Watertown man who lost it when he, then 19, and acquaintance Darren F. Blanchard got lost inside the caves on July 14, 1996, when firefighters had to rescue them.

Six members of the Niagara Frontier Grotto, a chapter of the National Speleological Society with 35 members, obtained permission from the city of Watertown to go into the many caves that honeycomb beneath the city.

When one of the explorers came across the wallet, the team knew almost immediately that it was Mr. Sweet’s and was left there so many years ago, veteran caver Joseph J. Giunta said.

“It is really cool,” said Mr. Giunta, 62, mentioning that the team had heard the story of two men lost in the caves.

The wallet was not far from the cave’s entrance, he said. Inside it were deteriorated U.S. paper currency, old Marine Midland bank and Flower Memorial Library cards, a learner’s driving permit and some salt-damaged coins.

On Sunday, Mr. Giunta called the Arsenal Street man to tell him the wallet had been retrieved. Of course, Mr. Sweet was surprised to hear the news, he said.

Mr. Sweet could not be reached for comment.

The two lost men emerged from the caverns after nearly two days inside with just a dead flashlight, according to a July 16, 1996, Times article about the rescue. When they were escorted out by police, they were cold, wet and showing early signs of hypothermia.

When their flashlight went out, they were about 175 feet into the cave and made their return guided only by the sounds of traffic and rushing water. They crawled backward to avoid sharp drop-offs and burned $70 in bills to keep them warm and use for light.

When they were found, they were crawling the wrong way, going in circles, police said then. The two had forgotten to climb up one level before trying to exit, Fire Chief Dale C. Herman said. Police immediately charged them with criminal nuisance for breaking a brick wall meant to keep people out.

However, the men could have been left for dead, Mr. Giunta said. Police at first thought they entered at Pearl Street, and Department of Public Works employees were all set to reseal the entrance to the cave with them still inside, he said. Police thought they had drowned in the Black River, he said.

“It’s an incredible story,” Mr. Giunta said. “They were very lucky, very fortunate to be alive.”

On Saturday, the six cavers became the first people inside the caves since the two men were rescued 16 years ago. Its entrance had been sealed with cement so a similar accident would never happen again.

About two years ago, the group of cave enthusiasts approached the city about exploring the caves. They had heard many stories about them, but the project kept getting delayed.

Finally, a custom-fit, 33-by-16-inch steel door with a lock was installed at the entrance a few weeks ago at a cost of $1,005, said Eugene P. Hayes, the city superintendent of public works.

Caves along the Black River extend for hundreds of feet from the banks and are said to reach as far as Public Square. There also are rumors that there are treasures inside and that some caverns reach into people’s basements.

As discovered Saturday, most of the caves are so small, the cavers had to crawl through them, Mr. Giunta said. They intend to start surveying and mapping out the caves when they return Saturday.

The city of Watertown Fire Department is in control of the key to the door, said Chief Herman, who remembered the rescue but was not a part of it. He has a file in his office about what happened.

When they entered the cave the other day, the cavers locked the entrance behind them, so no one else could get inside during their exploration, Chief Herman said.

The cavers also hope to hear from residents who know where other entrances exist.

“We do want to get the word out so we can find out more,” Mr. Giunta said.

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