Few terms can strike such primal fear and terror as the words "buried alive". Burned Alive....Drowned....both terrible ways to die, but the idea of being suffocated under the weight of the earth in blackness, soil filling mouth, nose, and ears, reaches deep into our souls and stabs at the deepest pit of our stomachs.
For six hours last night, we toiled, shored, and dug for the man trapped in a 12 foot trench under 6 feet of hard, cold, clay soil. Sweat poured from under our helmets, stinging our eyes and dripping down our backs. Terrified family members and neighbors pleaded with us to keep digging...don't stop...he has a 5 month old baby...
The danger of a second collapse forces us to painstakingly shore up the sides, using enormous boards and complex tools, before we can send anyone down to wear the man is, or, more likely, where his body lies under the oppressive weight of the earth he had been excavating. The family is anxious...why is it taking so long? Just let us go down there and dig....we'll take the risk if you won't. We do our best to assure them we are doing everything we can, but inside we know that this is no longer a rescue, but a recovery. After our initial frenzied dig, the IC tells us to stop. We are wasting precious energy gouging at the mound along the trench...our strength will be better put to use doing something more productive. We all reluctantly stop, leaning on shovel handles, eyes scanning the trench for a sign of something, anything. We hate to be just standing there, doing nothing.
As the hours tick by and all hope melts away, the hearts of the crowd on the other side of the scene tape are heavy, visible on their sullen faces. I resist the urge to shake my head in dismay and instead concentrate on dumping the buckets of soil raised on ropes from deep down in the trench and passed to my waiting hands.
After more than 6 hours, the man's body is found, crumpled and dirty, in full rigor. I do not get to see the body. I know where the sked will be raised and guard my position on the hill, to help carry him to the squad. Another firefighter, a large man, sidles up next to me, as if to take my place. The moment the sked becomes visible, I lunge for it, and take my place. The man takes a place, too, right next to me. There are too many people carrying the sked, but no one will let go. As we walk, I look to the man's wife; she is surrounded by her family and I can't see her anymore. All night I have shot glances at her, holding the beautiful, chubby baby in her arms and I wonder what her world will be like now. I try to put myself in her place for a moment, then shake it off and turn back to the contorted shape under the sheet. "Wish the outcome had been better" I reply to the man's mother as she thanks me for all we have done.
She thanked me.