Ore. firefighters rescue worker from collapsed trench

Firefighters added additional shoring in the trench to stabilize it; 40 emergency responders were at the scene

The Oregonian

PORTLAND, Ore. — Leonard Gebbie says he almost hit the wrong numbers while dialing 911 Monday morning.

One of the workers replacing a sewer line in his front yard in the 12700 block of Southwest Bowmont Street had just yelled for someone to call 911. It was just as Gebbie was walking out his front door about 11 a.m. to survey their work down in the about 11-foot deep trench.

About two feet of dirt had just collapsed down on the two workers in the trench. After two previous days of work, Monday was supposed to be the last day a crew from Apollo Drain & Rooter Service would be repairing the line.

"Panic had completely set in for me," said Gebbie, 73. "All I could think was 'please no, not these young kids.' I didn't know if they were going to make it."

The first minute in the trench was "iffy," said one of the workers, Ryan Bird. When the dirt came down on him and a colleague he said he wasn't sure at first if they were going to make it either.

Bird said he was in the trench with his colleague Danny Russu, 21, when the dirt collapsed onto them. He estimated that they were at least two feet from the bottom of the shoring and had tunneled in about one foot to expose the sewer line when the collapse occurred.

A third co-worker, Brad Lucas, 25, was above ground, saw the dirt fall onto them and shouted for anyone to call 911. He had just switched places with Russu in the trench before the collapse happened.

Bird was standing in the trench while Russu was on his back and was initially almost completely buried, Bird said. Lucas jumped back into the trench and began helping Bird dig Russu out. They took off his hard hat so he could lift his head and dug the dirt off his chest and face so he could breathe.

"He's a very religious guy," Bird, 25, said of Russu, pausing to collect himself. "And he was shouting prayers. He was talking the whole time."

Russu was in obvious distress, Bird said, and told him to keep digging. But Bird said he had to be cautious, because while he was digging dirt out, he didn't want more to come flooding in.

Eventually, they were able to get enough dirt off Russu that he was still able to push himself up, Bird said. But he was still buried from the waist down.

"I'm glad we were able to move fast enough and get [the dirt] off his chest so he could breathe," Bird said.

By noon, emergency responders including from Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, Portland Fire Bureau and Metro West Ambulance had arrived, along with close to two dozen neighbors and other spectators.

Bird and Lucas were able to get out of the trench without any injuries.

Firefighters added additional shoring in the trench to stabilize it, according to Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue. Two firefighter-paramedics rotated in and out of the trench to check on Russu's condition and help remove dirt.

A City of Portland truck was brought in to help suction dirt out of the trench at one point. Close to 40 emergency responders eventually were at the scene.

Rain started to come down hard as emergency crews continued working to rescue Russu, forcing them to put a tent and a blue tarp over the trench and bring in an extra lamp.

Meanwhile, Russu was given oxygen and sports drinks. Crews also lowered an IV bag in a bucket. The man remained alert and conscious and at one point even helping dig out the dirt, said Chris Hamilton, a Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue spokesman.

Emergency responders lowered a combined harness and backboard into the trench about 2:30 and Russu, with his arms and face caked in dirt, was pulled up soon after.

Gebbie said watching the man get pulled out of the trench was "like I just won the lottery.

"When I saw him get pulled out of there, and give us all a wave, that's truly what it felt like," he said.

Russu was loaded into an ambulance and taken to Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. His condition has not been updated.

Bird said he felt the "ultimate kind of relief," watching Russu be rescued. He mentioned that it easily could have been worse.

"I'm glad I can maybe take one day off instead of a lot more," Bird told reporters while standing with his brother, Derek, 24, on Monday.

Scott Bird, Ryan and Derek Bird's father and the owner of Apollo Drain & Rooter Service, said he was thankful for the good outcome and for his workers' quick thinking that helped save Russu.

Russu was able to wiggle his toes after he was freed, Scott Bird said. Russu's colleagues told him they loved him before he was put into an ambulance.

Scott Bird said in more than 30 years in business none of his workers have been buried before and that an annual safety training course that his workers take came into handy Monday.

"If they panicked or froze then Danny would have suffocated, I'm sure of it," said Bird, 55. "I’m relieved and very proud.”

Bird said a crew will be back Tuesday to finish replacing Gebbie’s sewer line.

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