MAY — When Jeff Tucker and his family moved to Brown County five years ago, the retired firefighter and now gentleman rancher never dreamed he would find himself in a dark cave in Missouri, as part of a Discovery Channel survival series.
Tucker, 54, who with his family lives on a ranch near May, will be featured in the new survival series “Darkness” during a two-night event Aug. 2 when the program debuts. Inspired by sensory-deprivation training used by NASA and Special Forces, “Darkness” is a groundbreaking next-generation challenge of mental and physical survival. Three survivalists are trapped inside cave systems, abandoned mines and underground labyrinths for up to six days, pushing themselves to their mental and physical limits, working as a team to survive, stay sane and find the exit back to the light.
Tucker and two other men participated in this project. Tucker, who also has a global Cross Fit gymnastics business, said he learned about the project after a friend sent him a blurb about the show.
He went on the Facebook page and responded.
“I basically laughed it off,” said Tucker, who was a firefighter for the Fort Worth Fire Department and worked as bomb tech and arson investigator for 20 years. A native of Mineral Wells, Tucker was raised in Irving, where he went to school. He and his wife, Tracy, a retired dean of students at Texas Christian University, moved to their ranch near May in 2012.
Tucker, who said he does not watch survival shows like Discovery’s “Naked and Afraid,” had all but forgotten about reaching out when two months later, the show’s casting director contacted him and asked him to fill out an application. He sent it in and five minutes later he was on a Skype interview and was hired almost immediately.
His background as a firefighter, cross fit instructor and trainer, apparently intrigued Discovery representatives.
Before he knew it, he was traveling to a private ranch in Pulaski, Missouri, and found himself at the entrance of a cave, as did two other participants, and all entered in different locations. They were tasked with finding each other in total darkness, with very little water and very few supplies.
Tucker said he was up for the challenge, even though he had been retired from firefighting for the past 16 years. He talked it over with his wife Tracy and they agreed he was up for the challenge.
“I haven’t done something like this in 16 years, the fire service was challenging every day,” Tucker said. “I have never been in a scenario like this, I worked in the dark in the fire service – I tripped over couches going into burning buildings and it was about touching and feeling, so I (thought) I had a little inkling of what this challenge would be like.”
Even though Tucker enjoys working on his ranch and traveling the world to give Cross Fit Gymnastics seminars, as he embarked on this challenge, he felt like he was out of shape.
“I think I’m in the worst shape of my life,” he said.
So before he embarked on what he called “the experiment” he put on 20 pounds, after consulting with a survivalist, because he knew, food and water would be scarce during the six-day challenge.
“He told me to eat and have some fat reserves,” Tucker said.
So on May 3, he and two participants would show up. Tucker said he had filled his backpack with “a lot of items, but a lot of items were taken away.”
Tucker and the other participants were given a backpack; he was allowed to keep three things, which included an Indian medicine bag, which he placed around his neck and a multi-tool blade. The producers provided an emergency backpack which included 25 feet of paracord, a water straw, an emergency radio, two four-ounce packages of water and a night vision camera so that they could record video diaries throughout the experience.
When the challenge began, Tucker and the others were blindfolded and led into an area in the cave, where he had to stay about a day and a half.
“The whole point of that was to see how we handled being isolated in total darkness,” Tucker said. “The other (point) was that we find the others that were in there and to find food, water and our way out.”
Tucker said one thing he did before entering was gather rocks, so he could use them to hear where he was going in the cave.
“There was no flat terrain you are constantly falling over a rock or a stalactite,” he recalled. I threw rocks in front of me and at one point, I threw three rocks and I never heard them hit bottom.”
Tucker said, while he was not tethered, there was a safety officer monitoring his every move. But when he did not hear the rocks hit bottom, “that was a sobering moment.” Because he was “very close to a bottomless pit.”
“That was a game changer – I honed in on every move I made from that point on,” Tucker said.
It would be three days before he found water, and about the same amount of time before he found Brandon, one of the other participants.
Because of his firefighter background, having no light did not bother him. When asked if he was accustomed to infrared or night vision cameras, he said no.
“They did not have that when I was a firefighter,” he said insisting, “it did not bother me not to have light.”
But he would not eat for five days, and did not find water for three days.
“It was a true survival experience – it was a real challenge – not a behind-the-scenes acting gig,” Tucker explained.
He would meet up with participant Brandon Lee, when he called out for help. They would meet up with Jack Stallings on the third day. He said they all had emotional moments - they were absolutely unavoidable.
“When you are sitting still in the dark, you become extremely reflective,” Tucker said. “The whole thing is a mind screw – you are not getting any rest or food or water and that exacerbates the situation.”
He added that all three of them “got sad and upset.”
“But we overcame that,” he said. “I’m really hoping they show that.”
He said he tried to avoid thinking about home and family, because it was too painful. But finally thinking about his wife, Tracy, and three children, McKenzie, Caitlin and Jackson did get him through the toughest portion of challenge.
“Thinking of the family did empower me to move forward,” he said.
While in the cave, after locating Brandon Lee, Tucker said the two dreamed of their return to civilization – sparingly.
Lee said he longed for some Buffalo Wild Wings and Tucker said he was thirsty for a Guinness.
“I told him when we got out, I would buy him some wings and he could buy me a Guinness,” he quipped.
According to a release from the Discovery Channel, documenting a project like “Darkness” has only become possible in recent years thanks to the latest advances in infrared, thermal and remote imaging technologies. A highly specialized team specifically trained to shoot in extreme environments with minimal interference produces “Darkness.” In order to keep the experience as immersive as possible, participants will also be outfitted with specialized custom-designed camera equipment enabling them to document their own experience without any exposure to light.
Tucker said he has not seen the final cut of the show. The entire experience is still fresh, he went in to the cave on May 28 and left Missouri June 4.
Once they came out of the cave, a medical team was waiting for them.
“When everything was completed, we had to do an interview with a psychologist and a medical check – both occurred in camp and they followed up after we got home,” Tucker said.
The first thing Tucker did after returning to civilization or a hotel as it were:
“I took a shower in my clothes first - it took forever…” he said.
Then, he and Lee, slipped away and kept that promise made in the cave.
“We got some wings and a couple of Guinness’s,” he said. “We had to decompress.”
He then called his wife, Tracy.
“We talked until 4 a.m.,” he said.
Tucker said he is still sorting out the experience, and he will be for some time.
But there are two things that have been on his mind constantly.
“I would love for people to see this and understand no matter how tough it gets, you always have another level to find yourself and get through,” he said. “I believe if you move forward, keep digging and show tenacity you can overcome things – that happened with all of us.”
He also said it reminded him of his commitment to serve others.
“There is no higher calling in life than to be in service to others,” he said. “That is what we are all here for on this little blue ball we call earth.”
He also learned the meaning of trust.
“We cast aside all judgments because we could not see – all we could do is feel and touch,” he said. “There was a lot of good trust and it had to be immediate.”
Being unplugged was a surprising benefit of the project.
“We are all so easily distracted with phones and computers and I’ve never been through a scenario where I was completely off the grid,” Tucker said. “That was really liberating – it was great and it felt good. I learned, you have to take time away - have some memories.”