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Trench Collapse Traps Man : Rescuers Free Him From Cement-Like Dirt After 9 Hours

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A 56-year-old man who was trapped up to his neck when a trench collapsed Friday morning spent more than nine hours painfully waiting as rescuers fought to remove the cement-like dirt that defied their efforts to free him.

Porfirio Martinez Vidal of Santa Ana, who works for a plumbing company, was buried when the walls of a narrow, 12-foot-deep trench with no shoring collapsed just after 9 a.m. Two co-workers who dug furiously to free Vidal from the waist up saved his life, said Santa Ana Fire Battalion Chief Tom Skelly.

“If he had been buried up to his neck, he would have died within 20 minutes, because he would not have been able to breathe,” Skelly said.

Firefighters initially thought the rescue would take about an hour. But because the trench was only two feet wide, and Vidal’s shoulders were pinned on each side, rescuers had to use plastic drinking cups to remove the dirt--the only scoopers that would fit the narrow space. But even when he had been freed to his ankles, rescuers discovered that the dirt had become saturated with water and still had Vidal trapped “like cement,” Skelly said. Vidal screamed with agony as they began to hoist him out.

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“He’s been feeling frustrated all day because he doesn’t understand how complicated it was going to be to pull him out. . . . We could have pulled his body apart that way,” Skelly said. “He’s been extremely anxious, going through some personality changes,” distraught that workers weren’t freeing him.

Jose Chavez, 25, one of the co-workers who saved Vidal, said the men were employees of A-Z Plumbing Service in Garden Grove and had begun digging the trench at Cabrillo Park Townhomes on Monday to repair plumbing lines that had been clogged by tree branches.

William Loupe, a safety engineer for Cal/OSHA, the state’s job safety agency, said a thorough investigation will be conducted into the accident. He said the project had several glaring safety violations, such as the lack of shoring on the 10-foot-long trench, and that the plumbing company could be fined $7,000 per violation.

Russ Reidsema, owner of the plumbing company, was called to the scene but he refused to comment on the cave-in.

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Mark Brown, 32, had been doing electrical work on the other side of the sprawling complex when the incident occurred.

“When I heard the sirens, I knew immediately what it was,” Brown said. “I talked to them on Thursday night and said, ‘You guys are crazy for not shoring that up.’ It was pretty deep. They just said, ‘Yeah, we gotta go deeper.’ ”

More than 50 rescue workers were called to the scene at 1300 N. Cabrillo Park Drive. Three firefighters at a time worked in the trench in 20-minute shifts in a time-consuming effort to remove the mud from around the man’s legs.

Chavez and Mario Prieto, 60, the other man who had freed Vidal to the waist, nervously watched the rescue.

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“I was in that ditch and I’m lucky I got out,” Chavez said shortly after the cave-in. “Now, I just want to see my friend and make sure he’s all right.”

Vidal, father of eight children, remained conscious throughout the day. A doctor called to the scene injected him with a blood thinner to prevent clotting.

As the drama unfolded throughout the day, a crowd of more than 100 people gathered to watch. They erupted in cheers as firefighters finally hoisted the worker from the trench at 6:35 p.m.

“Amen!” shouted resident Fina Cruz. “It’s wonderful! It’s been so traumatic and very trying, but it must be very gratifying for those firefighters.”

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Vidal was rushed to Western Medical Center-Santa Ana, where he was in stable condition with a fractured pelvis.

The cave-in occurred just outside the front windows of Lillian Twerby’s apartment. She said she was in her bathroom when she heard “screams of terror.”

“It was pure terror,” Twerby said as she stood from a balcony watching the rescue. “I didn’t think anyone was capable of hollering so loud. I called 911, then ran out to direct paramedics to the right complex.”

Twerby said she had befriended the three workers since they began the job on Monday and had invited them for a cold drink and a snack.

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“They are very gentle, very decent men,” she said. “They worked so hard. It’s sad that this had to happen, but I’m glad they got him out. I’m thrilled that he’s OK. He was up to his neck in dirt and I have never seen anyone dig so fast as (Chavez) did. It was just fantastic the way he dug.”

Firefighter Anthony Espinosa, 35, served as a translator for much of the day (Vidal only speaks Spanish) and said the experience was beginning to take an emotional toll on all of the rescuers.

“You spend nine hours with a guy who’s trapped and you kind of develop a relationship,” Espinosa said. “All I could do was tell him to keep calm and that we were almost ready to pull him out. I was real worried about him. After so many hours, you start to have that element of doubt and fear of further collapse. I’m just so glad he’s all right.”

The cave-in was similar to one which occurred in June in Laguna Beach when a 50-year-old community activist died after the walls of a 12-feet-deep trench collapsed while he was trying to install underground electrical wiring on his property.

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Like Friday’s incident, there was no trench shoring in place during that project. State law requires that trenches deeper than five feet be shored on the sides.

Still, safety engineer Loupe said such incidents are relatively isolated.

“About 15 or 20 years ago, it was different,” he said. “The industry has come a long way since then, because employers know what the results can be and what a financial and emotional loss you can suffer.

“This is a perfect example of what can happen.”

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