Buried chest-high himself, Chuck Eller scratched and pulled sand from atop one of his employees Thursday night after a construction cave-in buried sewer workers in north Spokane.
Eller, co-owner of Eller Construction, kept tugging at the sandy soil. But with each handful he removed, more poured in to cover Virgil Rose, 35.
“I grabbed a handful, then another and another and another. It just kept coming, up to here, then here, then here,” he said pointing finally to his upper chest.
Eller and two other workers were standing when the cave-in occurred at 4:54 p.m., but Rose was crouched with his legs underneath a trench box - a metal box that’s designed to guard against cave-ins.
Eller estimated Rose was buried for five minutes before rescuers cleared soil away from Rose’s head and opened an airway.
He wasn’t breathing when rescue crews arrived. His diaphragm had been pushed in by the crushing sand.
Crews used mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and oxygen bags to make Rose breath.
“The victim has some pain, he’s hollering,” Skip Wells, deputy chief of Fire District 9, said about 6:15. “The best news is he is doing just that.”
Rose, who was extricated at 8 p.m., was in satisfactory condition late Thursday at Sacred Heart Medical Center.
While Eller was also partially buried, the two other workers were able to scurry away from the falling sand.
“We used shovels, we used hands, anything we could to get him out,” Eller said.
The cave-in occurred on Highway 395 just south of Regina. Eller is the main contractor on the county’s $9 million North Spokane Sewer Interceptor, which will connect the existing sewer to new developments north of the Little Spokane River.
The crew has been working on the sewer line almost a month. Workers had just completed a boring under U.S. Highway 395 and were digging in an area where the soil was especially moist and sandy.
“The problem is we were 30 feet deep - it’s just the nature of the beast,” said Bill Hunt, another Eller employee. “It’s just sand and it runs like water.”
The hole was being dug to bury an 8-foot-wide concrete manhole.
At the work site, the land sloped from ground level down to a depth of about 30 feet. An orange trackhoe was pointed down the hole, obscuring Rose from the view of more than 100 spectators.
Five-member crews traded off every 20 minutes digging out the sand from around the trench box. Meanwhile, other workers carted in plywood and supports to shore up the sand and build a wall around the box.
Rescue workers passed wooden posts and pieces of plywood from worker to worker, down the slope. They carried 5-gallon buckets from the top of the work area to the bottom.
Some of them were volunteers trying to help one of their own.
Ron Triplett, a city worker who’s often worked with the Eller crew on digs, blinked back tears as he looked into the hole.
“They do have his head out,” Triplett said. “He’s breathing. You can hear him scream.”
Other complications came up. Light faded, and generators and special lighted trucks were brought in. A tree’s roots poked out of the cave-in, threatening to fall. The tree will be knocked down.
As Rose called for help, Eller sat against a concrete manhole and was comforted by workers in hard hats.
City, county and state departments rallied to rescue Rose. More than 25 District 9 firefighters, the Whitworth Water District, the city Water Department, Washington Water Power, the sheriff’s department, the city and state police and the Department of Transportation showed up.
Traffic was blocked off at Hawthorne and Division north to Hastings.
Dick Lundberg, who lives in the home behind the cave-in, held a video camera as he watched crews try to dig out the man.
“It rattled the dishes in the cupboard when it caved in,” Lundberg said.
ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos; Map of area