Regional effort aids in ditch rescue of county man

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Vevay was the center of regional attention last Wednesday after a Switzerland County worker was trapped for nearly five hours after a hole he was working in collapsed, trapping him 12-feet below street level.

John Dunning was working on Greeley Avenue in Vevay when he went into a ditch to try and find a town sewer line that he was attempting to tie into with a new sewer line for a residence.

On a sunny afternoon, suddenly everything changed. Chris See, fire chief of Jeff-Craig Fire and Rescue and the executive director of the Switzerland County Emergency Management Agency, said that it all started with a call to 911.

2:30 p.m.

“The call came in, and the person advised that there was a person buried in sand,” See said. “It was a third party call, and that was all of the information that they had. A couple of us who were responding were thinking that somebody might have been putting up a pool and putting sand down to level out a pool site; and I’m thinking that maybe a tailgate on the back of a dump truck had come open, and we were going to find somebody with sand on their extremities.”

See said that the initial call was for Jeff-Craig Fire and Rescue and Switzerland County EMS, and with no details from the caller, he asked for the Vevay Utility workers and all town employees come with shovels and he also called in some heavy equipment as he drove towards the Greeley Avenue location.

Jeff-Craig Fire and Rescue was on the scene within three minutes of getting the call, and See said that when they arrived, the local contractors were in the hole trying to dig Dunning out.

“They advised that the dirt was over his head when we got there,” See said. “I did what we call a ‘scene size up’, which is what we call an assessment of the scene and what is going on. I knew right away that it was more than we could handle. Not just our fire department, but any department in the community, because we lack the right tools for that type of rescue.”

See started making calls to the State Emergency Operations Center in Indianapolis, gathering the proper resources to the scene as quickly as possible.

“With some discussion at the state and some other contacts, we came to the conclusion that the nearest team was in Northern Kentucky,” See said. “That was the Northern Kentucky Technical Rescue Team.”

While the phone calls are going on, See also sent some people up to Vevay Mercantile, getting a bunch of plywood, 2x4s, and 4x4s, anything they could find to secure the area and assist in the rescue. He also called in an emergency medical helicopter from Air Methods because workers were trying to assess Dunning’s injuries.

3 p.m.

After bringing the lumber to the scene to secure the hole, See said that Lewis Fritter and Glenn Scott ascended into the hole to do some shoring operations.

“We had the dirt down below his waist within about 15-20 minutes,” See said. “But that’s when it started to get a little hairy. We started putting the shoring up, and we actually had a secondary collapse, that our shoring did hold back. We had to make sure that it wasn’t going to continue to fall, and we had to shore it up a little more; but that made it pretty risky. If we would have been five more minutes with the shoring, it would have covered him up a second time. It was very time sensitive in terms of getting people in and getting it done.”

Both Fritter and Scott were in the hole when the secondary collapse happened, but the shoring held well enough that they were able to get out without injury and no further dirt covered Dunning.

3:15 p.m.

Along with physically removing Dunning from the hole, See said that emergency medical personnel began to worry about his health.

“At that point, we decided that if we were going to save this guy, we had to get some medicines in him,” See continued, “So the flight medic, Johnny Collins from Madison, he got into the hole. It was very risky getting into that hole. It was very dangerous, but it was a risky situation but something we try and do is manage our risks. Yes, it was risky, but we took some precautions trying to make sure that we limited our risk and our time in the hole.”

See said that if the medics didn’t go down into the hole and to the victim and get an IV established, Dunning may have died at the scene from injuries he sustained.

3:30 p.m.

Northern Kentucky Technical Rescue Team arrives at the scene and immediately begins to set up operations and put the necessary emergency equipment in place to ramp up the rescue. Teams were established, equipment was allocated, and extensive shoring equipment began to be constructed. Large trucks filled with rescue equipment is rolled into place.

4 p.m.

Northern Kentucky Technical Rescue Team began their rescue operation, with team members representing different fire departments and agencies all around Northern Kentucky.

“In total there were 22 entities that we had on scene,” See said.

See said that one of the first things that the Northern Kentucky team did was check the air quality in the hole, and began to run fans in order to get better air into the victim. They also began to run heaters, blowing warm air down into the hole because the soil temperature 12-feet below ground level was 50-degrees, making hypothermia a possibility as the cold soil sucked the heat out of Dunning’s body .

See said that Dunning was in a seated or kneeled position in the hole, which caused rescuers to work even more carefully in beginning to extract him.

From there, the rescue team began to build a box around the victim, putting rams and air bags in place to keep the walls from caving in again. Because the trench was so narrow, especially after the extensive shoring was completed, there was only enough room for two emergency workers to go down in the trench at a time.

5:30 p.m.

After using hands and five-gallon buckets to remove the dirt, a vacuum truck from a factory across the river arrived on the scene. After workers parked the truck a distance away from the hole because of the vibration that the truck makes, a long hose was sent down into the hole, allowing the dirt surrounding Dunning to be removed more easily.

“It was very time sensitive,” See said. “We’d have to dig for a little bit, then we’d have to give him some medication. Then we’d dig a little bit and then stop and give him medication. It was a very careful process. If the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing, it wouldn’t have been good. It was really a balancing act.”

7:15 p.m.

Television crews were now on the scene, both on the ground and in helicopters hovering over the area; and after a highly coordinated effort between emergency workers, the medical helicopter flight crew, the technical team, and a lot of community volunteers; John Dunning emerged from the hole, surrounded by medical and emergency workers. He was placed on a gurney and immediately taken to a Switzerland County EMS ambulance, and then to the Paul Ogle Park, where the Air Methods helicopter was waiting to transport him to University Hospital in Louisville.

See said that shortly after take off, both of Dunning’s lungs collapsed, but medical personnel on the helicopter were able to release the air in his chest cavity and allow his lungs to expand.

See said that Dunning is still at the Louisville hospital. He has 13 broken ribs, two collapsed lungs, and also has back and shoulder injuries.

After the five hour ordeal, See said he was very proud of how everyone responded and did what they needed to do.

“It was one of those things where a couple of phone calls were made on our end, and then a couple of predetermined responses kicked in,” he said. “Our dispatchers made one phone call to Northern Kentucky. We had a lot of general public who showed up to help, and we put them to work too. I am very proud of all of our people and all the local businesses who gave us whatever we needed. The whole community just came together for about five or six hours, and everybody just had one objective, and that was to get that guy out alive.”