The Call I’ll Never Forget – “Buried Alive”

July 24, 2014 2:35pm

James, Tim and Captain Dave were down by the fire station at the lake. We were there to pick up a new saw for the truck to replace an old one taken out of service. We had just come from “Stores” on Rotherham to pick up some other equipment about 30 minutes earlier.

I was checking the Fire Dispatch app on my phone to see if we were missing any fires in our area while we were away. It was then that I saw that there was a “Confined Space Rescue” underway, not far from our hall. Surely we would have been dispatched had we still been in station. We absolutely would have been the first arriving truck if we were still at Stores which was a few blocks from the call.

I went and informed Dave that we were missing a rescue call as well as a nearby fire that was happening at the same time. I was hoping we could get back to our station in the hopes of still making it to either call. I was driving, so it wasn’t a guarantee that I would get to do much at either call, but I wanted to try at least.

You never wish for bad things to happen, but you absolutely want to be there when it does to help and put all your training to good use.

While we were on our way back, Dave looked up the call on the computer and gave us the details – There was a trapped construction worker in a trench on a residential work site. It was then that we saw our sister truck was dispatched to the scene as well. At this point I was regretting our decision to leave our district to retrieve a Saw that could have been delivered to us.

When we arrived back at the station, our sister truck (which was a spare pumper at the time) was still at the call. I thought surely they were making a difference and getting work done. I went about my business and decided to fit in a workout in the gym. Near the end of my workout, I saw the incident on the news. I had my music blasting, but the headline was clear as day “Construction worker dies after being trapped”. My heart sunk, but I wasn’t surprised. The odds of surviving a trench collapse are very slim. If you don’t suffocate, you die from being crushed.

After my workout and shower, I went to the kitchen and our other crew had returned. I asked them what happened and what they ended up doing. Their captain (Acting Captain) said they never really got close to the scene, and they didn’t see much. They helped moved equipment to the scene and then cleared. It was apparent that the worker died within minutes of the collapse and now it as a recovery mission more than anything else.

Later that night (around 9:00pm) the Spare Pumper was dispatched back to the scene. Shortly after the tones went off, the phone rang and it was our dispatch center asking that the Rescue take that call as it was our turn. We had a feeling we would be extricating him.

When we arrived, we relieved another pumper and they had said to expect to sit around babysitting the scene until someone steps up and starts making decisions. We later learned that no one wanted responsibility for the scene. The city felt it was too unsafe for their construction crews to work the scene and the Ministry of Labour was only there to investigate. Finally, a Divisional Commander made some calls and had the heavy equipment show up within the hour to start the long work of removing the dirt around the victim.

We parked our truck and walked forward to assess what needed to be done. We met with Squad truck (Heavy Rescue) and they briefed us on the events thus far.

At this point, it was dark and an Air Light truck was setting up lighting for the scene. There were dozens of people around. Media, police, fire, ambulance, the Ministry of labour, construction crews, neighbours as well as the family and friends of the deceased. Our crew started by helping the Squad remove the construction fencing around the house. We shovelled and cut the fencing. We worked together almost seamlessly and made the scene accessible for the front loaders to go to work. Before the vehicles could get close to the scene, my captain needed me to move our truck down the road out of the way. He rode with me while James and Tim stayed on scene. I told him then that I wasn’t sure how Tim or James would feel about it, but I would prefer to stay on scene until the victim was extricated. I know I would have felt useless if they rotated our truck out with another truck and we went home without a resolution. He was on board and I feel like he would have been even if I didn’t bring it up. It was important for me though to let him know where my head was at and what my main priority was.

After repositioning the truck, we returned to the scene and watched the heavy machinery go to work. The crowds came and went and came back again. It was a long process and they were very methodical. Many eyes, watched as the claw of the front loader, slowly and carefully removed mounds of fresh soft soil with surgical precision. It was hypnotizing really. Scrape, scoop, lift and move to the side. Often times the arm of the loader came within a foot of the engineers and investigators that crept closer to see how the scene reacted with each cubic yard of soil removed. At one point one of the investigators was smacked in the hand by the claw. Based on his reaction, it was not a good feeling, yet he knew it was his own fault. His scolded puppy look revealed that.

After a couple hours of this, the Chief came over and asked if we wanted to be relieved for another truck. Immediately my captain told him no. He said we were in this for the long haul. That made me satisfied me, we were going to be here until it was over. In retrospect, that may have been a bad decision. Regardless, this is exactly what I signed up for.

As we got closer to actually entering the hole ourselves, we discussed with the Squad captain what the plan of attack was. We were each assigned tasks. Who was going to be on top of the body with the precision tools, who would be nearby with the shop vac to remove dirt in sensitive areas, who was going to strategically hold the tarps in place to save the victim from the many eyes around. I remember the neighbours next door specifically in their second floor bedroom watching the scene unfold from a perfect angle. Later they drew their blinds assuming we couldn’t see them watching. We could. The tarps were specifically so shield the scene from them at one point.

I also remember seeing people across the street on their second floor terrace holding toddlers in their arms. I shook my head trying to understand why they would want to expose their young ones to what was potentially going to be a gruesome scene.

Authors Note: This is the point in the blog that I stopped writing on July 25th, 2014. It is now July 24, 2015, one year later. I didn’t want to finish what I started. I just didn’t want to write the details. I didn’t realise at the time that this was going to be “my call”. The call that sticks with me throughout my career. Now on the one year anniversary, I feel like I owe it to myself to finish it. I owe it to my fellow brothers and sisters to post it and maybe help them in any way. Least of which, to let them know they aren’t alone in what they feel.

The Badger truck had finally arrived on scene. The front loaders had satisfied the Ministry of Labour (MOL) that the amount of soil removed on the scene, has now made it safe for us to climb down inside and perform the extrication. My task was to use a shop vac and suck up the dirt that the Squad guys were unearthing near where the victim was estimated to be. The victim’s name was Mike for the record. I remember climbing into the hole, sliding and looking to steady myself. Being extra careful where I was stepping. There were a lot of eyes on the 8 of us in that hole. I watched intently, sucking up the loose dirt and continually unclogging the shop vac every few minutes. Then climbing further away to dump the small payload collected. Slowly but surely, we finally unearthed the first part of Mike, it was his right hand. I watched as his fingers met the artificial light supplied by the trucks. They were stark white and to my surprise, they appeared flat and void of any fluid let alone life. I guess in the back of my mind you always pray that this will be a miracle scene and somehow he would start to wiggle his fingers and show us he was actually alive. As if he found a void in the soil and was able to breathe this entire time. It’s silly I know, and it was completely unlikely, but the shred was still in the back of my head. Always hoping for the best I guess yet still expecting the worst. Now that his hand was exposed, we were able to judge his positioning and made quick work of the rest of the soil. While his arm started to get revealed, another rescuer worked on his head. He exposed his ear, completely rammed with soil. Then his jawline, his mouth and nose, all completely packed in with light brown dirt. He didn’t remove the soil from his eyes however, and at first I was confused, annoyed even. Get the fucking dirt out of his eyes, I thought to myself. All the while, the other rescuers were working down his torso. He was wearing a bright orange, short sleeve, construction shirt with a yellow X on it. Black jeans and work boots. While his legs from the knees down were straight up and down as if he was standing, the rest of his body from the knees up was laying back. It was clear from the positioning of his body, specifically his arms; he knew exactly what was happening at the time. He was fossilized in a defensive stance as if to try and shield the dirt from falling in on him. It was an incredibly sad scene.

After 45 minutes to an hour, he was completely exposed. Except his eyes, they still had a mound of dirt over them similar to an anthill piled up. By now, I clued in and realized it had nothing to do with respecting Mike. It had to do with the rescuer seeing the eyes of the man that undoubtedly will haunt his dreams. Leave him faceless for as long as you can and maybe it will help you forget this call. Unlikely, but I understand it now. After he was exposed, we placed him in a stokes basket, strapped him in and attached a rope to the basket. We finally pulled him out and up to the street level ensuring the tarps shielded him from the many onlookers that had been waiting hours for this moment. I looked around at all the faces. Everyone was completely silent. No one breathed, or so it seemed. It was clear this was a sight nearly everyone there was seeing for the first time. It was eerie, but respectful. The moment was heavy to say the least. Here we was, everyone had been discussing ad working so hard to reach him and now he was here. All the while, we went on the words of a small few that he was actually buried. We all now were left with zero doubts. This was a tragedy.

Now that Mike had been removed, and was lying in the basket in the middle of the road, we brought an A-frame ladder over. We duct tapped blue tarps to the Badger truck, to the ladder and I held two other corners and stood on guard. We now had to wait for the coroner to arrive and officially pronounce the body. Slowly, different agencies left the scene. Ambulance was no longer required. The media trickled away. Most of the police and MOL went home. The neighbours, onlookers left. Finally some family members came over to view Mike. I held a flashlight and pointed it beside his body on the ground. I remember wanting to illuminate the area, but I didn’t want to point the light anywhere specific on his body. I didn’t want to focus. It’s also important to note that at the time, I was just reacting to everything around me. I wasn’t “feeling sad”, I wasn’t “upset” at what had happened. I was just “doing”.

At one point, it was just Mike and I. My crew was taking equipment back to the truck, everyone else was off somewhere more important doing other things. It literally was Mike and I and the moon. If it wasn’t a full moon that night, it sure was close because it was bright. I remember that specifically. It was now 2:40am, and I remember staring at Mike thinking about how 12 hours and 5 minutes earlier, he was alive and breathing and not at all concerned with what would eventually unfold.

Once the coroner arrived, he knelt down beside mike and inspected his body for injuries. He also cleared the dirt from his eyes. They were already closed.

Then a hearse arrived and two men in suits came out with a body bag. I had seen body bags many times in my life, all occupied in a sterile setting in funeral homes and hospitals etc. this was the first time I watched the process at the scene. They laid it alongside Mike and unfolded it. It was thick black plastic with very defined creases from being folded. The smaller of the two men unzipped it and opened it up. As he stepped over it I watched small amounts of dirt fall into the bag from his boots. I remember thinking to myself how that bit of dirt was someone’s front lawn yesterday and today its travelling with a dead body to eventually get washed down a drain in the basement of a funeral home. It’s strange what pops into your head at the weirdest of moments. I guess I was just taking it all in.

Mike was a solid guy, and rigor had set in a bit, it wasn’t an easy transfer from the stokes basket to the bag, but these two men in suits managed. I can only imagine the amount of experience they have and the things that they’ve seen in their careers. They never get the good feeling of a rescue, only the aftermath of a devastating scene.

After Mike was loaded into the hearse and driven away, we stood around for a few minutes discussing the night with each other, sort of like decompressing. I walked back over to the hole where Mike died. It’s absolutely against the rules, but I snapped a picture with my iPhone anyway. Just for my own purposes I guess.

We finally returned to the hall and cleaned up the equipment we had used. I remember being annoyed with the other crew that stayed in the hall while we recovered Mike. They all were tucked into bed and nothing had been done. The coffee pot was on and had burned dry, the dishwasher wasn’t loaded or running, and the kitchen was a mess. These are all duties that get done before lights out. I was infuriated to come back to that after we were working our ass off at the scene. But you pick and choose your arguments, and really, they were insignificant things to get upset about considering what Mike’s family was dealing with.

The last pieces of equipment to go back on the truck, were the blue tarps we used to block the onlookers from seeing the body. My captain and I held one end each as we folded it. It was then when my captain spoke, that I felt like I got punched in the gut. He looked at me and said “Terrible. A father has lost his son and two kids have lost their dad”. The air left my body, “What? He was a dad?” I was stunned. I just imagined him as some young bachelor type kid with no immediate family other than his parents. But no, my captain informed me he was married with two kids he was also the same age as me. Suddenly, everything changed and I revisited the entire call in my head with a new vantage point. It was me in that hole. It was my wife that lost me and my two boys that lost their dad. It sounds selfish to suddenly make the call about me, but I couldn’t help but put myself in that hole. I have a dangerous job, I have a family like he did, and I never put myself in a situation where I wouldn’t be there for my kids until now. A few hours later, my shift was done and I went straight to my boy’s house and hugged the hell out of both of them.

A few days later on my next shift, Steve a co-worker of mine told me he knew the family through a friend of his. He was able to get the full name of Mike and I looked it up online. It’s amazing what you can find online. I shouldn’t have searched, because I found pictures of his daughters and wife and family and I learned a lot about him. Particularly, the fact that both of his daughters were born in the same years and months as my boys. It was eerie how similar our lives were.

It’s sad, Mike wasn’t driving drunk, he wasn’t in a gang and didn’t die in a drug deal gone bad. He was at work. Working hard with his father. Providing for his family, while his dad was the boss of the scene. When his dad told him to get in the trench to dig out the drain pipe, surely he didn’t think twice. Your dad wouldn’t ask you to do something that would put you in danger right? Mike was an honest man, making an honest living and just made a mistake. He should have never been in that hole. It wasn’t constructed or supported to code. It was too unsafe. It doesn’t matter now though.

A couple days afterwards I found the picture on my phone that I took of the hole. While I didn’t realise it at the time, the gas line and drain pipe intersected right above where he died. Once he was removed, it literally looked like a grave with a cross.


It’s been exactly one year and I was able to finish this post with as much detail as if I had written it last year when I started. I won’t easily forget this call. Which is fine, this is what I get paid to do; this is exactly what I signed up for. It’s my job now.


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