Teamwork pays off during rescue
By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- When George Bessler heads to the beach with his kids, they like to bury him in the sand. Even with a kid-sized layer of sand over his body, Bessler has to struggle to free himself from the grainy tomb.
Why? Sand is heavy, especially if wet.
On Tuesday evening, Bessler, deputy commander of the Pinellas County Technical Rescue Team, peered down a hole at a man stuck in the sand. Brian Doane, a 31-year-old construction worker, had been sucked into the hole while drilling into the ground at the site of the new Clearwater Library.
After Doane was dragged down, sand filled in around his lower body, burying him up to his rib cage. Doane's head was about 4 feet below the hole's surface, his legs were bent by the weight of the sand, and he couldn't move. He was stuck.
Why? The sand that encased his body was heavy. In fact, it probably would have weighed more than 21/2 tons if it were dry. But this sand was wet. It was heavier.
That's one of the reasons it took Bessler and other rescuers about three hours to free Doane. Moreover, crews had to ensure more dirt didn't avalanche on top of Doane and suffocate him.
"Most of our rescues are slow and methodical," said Pete Huffman, the Clearwater assistant fire chief who commands the technical rescue team.
On Wednesday, rescue officials detailed the twists and turns of their operation, offering a glimpse into technical rescues, a public safety term for methods used at accidental burials, collapsed buildings and confined space emergencies.
The incident Tuesday began about 4:50 p.m. as Doane, who works for Driggers Engineering Services Inc., was helping drill into the soil at the library site, 100 N. Osceola Ave.
Doane was standing near the drill when it hit a cavity under the surface. The ground gave way, creating an instant sinkhole effect that swallowed Doane.
Dozens of emergency workers were called from across the county to help.
Rescuers started talking to Doane, though they had to keep away so they wouldn't collapse the hole. Commanders ordered nearby vehicles and machines be turned off, lest the vibrations cause a collapse.
Then there was the weather: Officials heard funnel clouds were seen nearby. Heavy rain reportedly was minutes away from Clearwater. Spits of rain fell from the sky.
Rain would have collapsed the sides of the hole on top of Doane. But the heavy rain stayed away.
The next step was to see if Doane could rescue himself. Workers handed him a 5-gallon bucket and told him to dig. He filled two buckets before tiring.
Workers placed plywood sheets around the hole to distribute their weight so it wouldn't collapse. They placed boards along the sides of it to keep dirt from rolling down.
Rescuers dug around Doane with small shovels. They filled about 10 buckets, but dirt also was sliding in the hole.
As workers talked to Doane, they wanted to do two things: Keep him informed and keep him in good spirits. They told him everything they were doing.
"You can imagine how isolating that must feel to be down there," said Bessler, training officer for the Seminole Fire Department.
They also joked with him: "Don't you guys have better ways to figure out how stable the ground is?" one rescuer asked him. Doane chuckled and answered: "We usually use a truck."
"He was scared at first," said Frank DeFrancesco, deputy commander of the rescue unit. "But he had a real good personality and we joked about it."
But there were concerns. If rescuers pulled Doane out too fast, it could have ripped his body in pieces. If they removed dirt too fast, blood would quickly return to his lower body, causing shock.
Then they hooked up a vacuum truck, which sucked up about a ton of sand. Rescuers freed Doane just before 7 p.m.
He was flown by helicopter to Bayfront Medical Center and released that night. Neither he nor Driggers officials could be reached Wednesday. Officials said the Pinellas technical rescue team responds to about 30 calls per year. The team has been in place since 1990, though Tuesday's call was one of the most serious burials they have seen.
"I think we stepped up to the plate and worked as a team," said DeFrancesco, a Largo fire district chief. "Our plan worked and our teamwork paid off."
The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration was investigating the incident Wednesday, which is routine, said Perry Lopez, the city's building construction superintendent.
Lopez said there is nothing workers can do to test for cavities. Lopez said Driggers representatives told him they have done thousands of drillings, with this being the first such incident.
Still, city contractors who drill now will be required to place plywood around the hole. Lopez said the hole that trapped Doane will be filled. Work there should restart this morning.
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