Plumber trapped by cave-in freed in 8-hour rescue

November 08, 1991|By John Rivera and David Michael Ettlin

A quiet Baltimore County neighborhood was riveted yesterday by the drama of dozens of rescue workers painstakingly digging for eight hours to free a plumber from a caved-in trench.

Jere David Kates, 28, receiving oxygen and strapped to a backboard, was lifted out on a harness about dusk, after being trapped in dirt since morning, into the glare of spotlights. He managed to give a thumbs-up sign to cheering rescuers and spectators.

"You laughed, you cried, you just cheered," said Kathi Albanese, a neighborhood resident and plumber's wife who noted, "You don't know the man, but you pray."

Mr. Kates, working with a backhoe operator and a helper, was looking for the cause of a sewer pipe backup at the home of Thomas and Barbara Cunningham in the 900 block of Dalton Road, in the East Point section of Baltimore County. He was standing in the deep trench they had dug in front of the house when the dirt walls collapsed at 9:17 a.m.

A neighbor across the street said she heard the backhoe operator yell out, and she knew something was wrong. "At first he said 'Oh, no!' Not loud, but panicky," Michele Hartsock said. "I looked out the window, and I knew then and there that there was somebody trapped in the hole."

Mrs. Cunningham was in her living room when the trench collapsed. "I just looked out and saw he had dirt up to his neck," she said. "And the next thing I knew, the dirt just caved in on him. He was covered completely, except for his hand."

The assistants managed to clear the dirt covering Mr. Kates' head by digging frantically with their hands. Their shouts for help brought the first of what would become dozens of rescue workers -- as well as news reporters, photographers, and a crowd of neighbors and spectators.

Mr. Kates was in contact with rescue workers throughout the ordeal, and workers provided him with humidified oxygen to make breathing easier and a heater to keep him warm. Officials put him in contact with his mother through radio communications equipment to boost the trapped plumber's morale, said Fire Specialist Tony Folio of the Advanced Tactical Response team, which coordinated the rescue.

"He was in good spirits the whole time," Mr. Folio said. "He told his mother he wanted dinner. He said, 'Get dinner ready for me.' "

Rescuers meticulously moved dirt out of and away from the hole, shoring up walls with pneumatic jacks and heavy wooden planks that formed a box around Mr. Kates, to minimize danger to themselves and to the plumber when they finally managed to move him.

They dug with small hand shovels, which made the process painstakingly slow. After digging down two feet, they lowered the wooden shoring and continued digging.

"The farther we got down, the narrower the hole got," making working conditions even more difficult, Mr. Folio said. The workers lifted the dirt out of the hole in buckets lowered with rope.

At the very end, Mr. Kates "got antsy, he wanted to get out," Mr. Folio said. Darkness had descended, and the front yard was brightly illuminated by a spotlight suspended from the end of an aerial ladder as Mr. Kates was raised at 5:15 p.m.

Mrs. Albanese watched the rescue effort all day and kept the workers supplied with hot coffee. She laughed with relief after Mr. Kates was rescued. "I don't want to see another cup of coffee for a long time," she said.

In spite of his ordeal, Mr. Kates was in amazingly good shape, rescue workers said. "The only thing he was complaining about was tingling in his legs, which is a good start," said Battalion Chief Stephen Lancaster of the tactical response team.

Mr. Kates was taken by ambulance to a nearby elementary school, where he was transferred to a helicopter and flown to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Last night, after undergoing 45 minutes of surgery to release pressure on his left leg, the result of a crush injury, he was listed in good condition.

Dr. Carl Rosati, the trauma surgeon who operated on Mr. Kates, said it is probable he sustained some permanent nerve damage in the leg. The doctor said Mr. Kates will be watched very closely in the coming days to ensure that toxins that built up due to damaged tissue do not damage his kidney.

"The problem, I'm afraid, is probably the timing. He was buried for a long, long time," Dr. Rosati said. "After a certain number of hours of being crushed, there is some irreversible damage. It could be as simple as losing some muscle to some nerve damage."

Mr. Kates will face more surgery on Saturday to determine the extent of the damage to his leg, Dr. Rosati said.

As Mr. Kates' mother, Jean Kates, left the hospital last night, she said she was "just feeling very relieved that he's OK. He's talking, he's worried about his leg," she said.

"He's just glad to be out of that hole," she said. "He said he'd never go back there again, he'd never go in another hole. He didn't think he'd make it out."

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