Tunnelers recount narrow escape
Trapped 120-feet below ground with thousands of gallons of water pouring into their excavation hole, miner Hoip “Ali” Swaby began to talk to God.
His thoughts, running as fast as his brain could filter them, also turned to his wife, and two sons, aged 3 and 7.
How would they get by without him? he thought.
It all started late Friday afternoon, nearing 6 p.m., when Swaby, 41, of Brockton, along with fellow co-workers Kenny Schofield, 45, of Framingham, and John Kanash, 49, of Barnstead, N.H., had finished using a mini-excavator 120 feet below the ground to dig a horizontal tunnel that would later be filled with pipe to continue the Combined Sewer Overflow project at the end of Lowell Street for their employer, Walnut, Calif.-based J.F. Shea Construction. Waiting for the crane to lift the excavator and the three men out of the hole, Schofield said he heard a sound like rushing air, followed by some small pebbles that fell into their hole.
And then the water came, slow at first, a dirty colored water, but then the rush came and water began to flood the workers’ area quickly.
“This isn’t good,” Schofield, a four-year Shea construction employee, told his colleagues.
And it would only get worse.
“When you’re down there, you know when the sound changes, and that’s when we saw the water start coming,” said Swaby, a veteran of seven years with Shea Construction. “I thought someone had just opened a pipe up.”
An industrial sump pump was turned on but soon became inundated with an amount of water it could not control.
The water soon rose past 3 feet high in depth, then 4 feet, 5, and 6 feet, with the three men beginning to climb the walls to escape the rushing water.
Then the lights went out.
John Kanash, a seven-year employee of Shea Construction, with 28 years in all — two years away from retirement, said when he saw the water come in, he began to grip the rocks along the 16-foot wide shaft. By the time the water reached his chin, he thought about his wife and family, and drowning in the hole, but he stayed in survival mode, continuing to climb.
“We thought the river was coming down on us,” Kanash said, married with four children, aged 20, 18, 14 and 12.
Kanash was successful, initially, in climbing away from the rising water, until he ran out of rocks and all that was left was a bare wall with nothing to grab on to. He released his utility belt in an attempt to float, but his mud boots, which he couldn’t pull off, continued to weigh him down.
Unbeknownst to Kanash or Schofield, up above them, crane operator Mike Salvador, 36, of Fall River, just a few months on the job with Shea, had been tipped off to a potential problem in the hole, even though there was little he could see down the hole because of its depth and lack of lighting.
As he was instructed in a rescue training course that he and Swaby ironically took just two days prior, Salvador’s quickly directed his crane to grip a 4-feet by 4-feet yellow “man cage” that he lowered down the hole. Hours before and as part of the three full-day rescue training program, Salvador had measured the distant to the hole on the crane rope, so that if something did happen down the shaft, he would know how long to go down before hitting bottom, and potentially crushing someone.
With the water up to his chest, Swaby began to say his prayers when he noticed the yellow cage bobbing next to him. Grabbing hold of the cage that Salvador left in the shaft for just about five seconds in all, Swaby was lifted to safety. Due to the darkness and size of the shaft, Schofield and Kanash never saw the cage lifted in or out.
Once Swaby got to the top, he motioned for Salvador to send him back down into the water, despite it continuing to rise to the top.
One of the workers on the ground tossed Swaby a small flashlight and Salvador lowered the cage back into the rushing water.
“You could barely see what was in front of your face, there was no way the guys would have seen the cage,” said Swaby. “I had to go back down. We’re trained that once you get out of danger, you stay out of danger, but things don’t always work out that way.”
Kanash said it was the “2-inch” circle of light he saw through the dark water, the flashlight Swaby had just brought with him, that ended up saving his life. Kanash swam toward the light, getting into the cage and Swaby gripped onto Schofield within seconds and the three were lifted out.
Salvador said he didn’t get a true feel of the situation until he got off the crane and saw the water rushing into the hole that he had just taken the men out of.
“So many things could have gone wrong,” said Salavador. “We just needed to get all of them out.”
Schofield said that he would have swam up to the top of the shaft if not rescued, that he “wasn’t going to come out as a body bag.” But Safety Manager Dave Walbourne said the chance of both Kanash and Shea surviving that swim would have been remote, at best.
All four men returned to work on Monday morning, all changed in their own private ways.
“The best thing you can do is go back to work, just to see the group, you want to get back as soon as possible,” said Kanash. “It’s like riding a bike, you have to get back on. Besides, your wife doesn’t understand what you went through, only these guys do.”
Schofield laughed that he didn’t know what was worse, almost drowning in the shaft, or driving more than two hours home to Framingham in the torrential rains that followed Friday night. But when he got home, he woke up his wife, and three children, aged 13, 11 and 7, and hugged them.
The same goes for all three men.
Kanash hailed Swaby as a hero for saving the pair when they couldn’t see anything as the water poured in, but Swaby waved off that talk, saying it was all part of the training they had just gone through, all a team effort.
As for what caused the rush of water, likely caused by the massive rain on Friday and a breach in one of the old CSO masonry pipes, an official explanation could take days, officials said Monday,
As for leaving his co-workers down there, that just wasn’t part of the equation, Swaby said.
“I guess it would have been easier to have stayed and not gone back down, but I felt it would have been harder to leave them down there,” Swaby said.
He too went home to his family and took the time throughout the weekend to spend every moment with them, not sweating any of the small things that can sometimes get under a parent’s skin.
On Tuesday, he and his wife will continue their discussion on what will happen in the event that something does happen to his wife or himself and where the kids will go.
But luckily for Swaby and his wife and children, that’s a conversation that can wait for another day.
E-mail Jay Pateakos at email@example.com.