Rescue Drill Sparks Painful Memories

OSWEGO, NY – For the dozen or so firefighters participating in a “Trench Rescue” drill recently, their minds were focused on the task at hand , considering perhaps some time in the future when they had to use these skills.

One of the onlookers, however, was transported nearly two decades into the past.

John Sawyer talks to the firefighters after the training exercise. Nearly 20 years, he pointed out, this was reality for him.Participants in the drill worked to free a more than 150-pound life-size dummy that was buried under hundreds of pounds of debris in tunnel near the city’s westside water treatment plant.

In July 1988, it wasn’t a mannequin; John Sawyer was basically buried alive in a trench collapse on the college campus.

He was in a trench between southeast corner of Hart Hall and Hewitt Union on the SUNY Oswego campus when it caved in around him.

“It was a steam line job that we were working on. I don’t really remember exactly what happened, except the line broke; I knew I was going to get burned, the only question was how bad,” he told the Daily News.

The accident cost him most of his left arm and some fingers on his right hand.

He doesn’t remember exactly how long he was in the trench.

A vac truck is used during the trench rescue drill to suction debris from the accident site.“I don’t remember much, except for a pain in my back and I couldn’t breathe very good at all,” he said. “They just didn’t have the equipment then that they have now.”

One thing he does remember is the rescuers were unsure of where his legs were.

“I was still basically covered up to my waist when the got me upright,” he explained. “They didn’t know if my legs went that way or that way or what. I was actually in a fetal position; they were right here in front of me.”

“I told them, get one guy on each arm and I’ll stand right up. And I did. I stood right up, I turned a little bit and I remember laying right back into the lap of the firefighter behind me,” he continued.

It took him about six months to recover, he said.

He said he still does just about everything he did before the accident except bowl.

“I was a leftie,” he explained. “I don’t bowl and I don’t play softball. But other than that, I do everything I did before. But I still go hunting; I use handguns, shotguns and rifles. I fish and I play golf, I made my own golf adapters to play with.”

During the drill, the firefighters used the vac truck, usually used to suck up leaves, to remove dirt from the trench as the rescuers cleaned away the dirt and stones with hand tools.

Once the “victim” was freed, his neck was stabilized and he was strapped to a stretcher as he was slowed extricated from the trench.

Richard Depasquale, FDNY, has been going around the state providing training for brother firefighters for nearly 10 years.

The other instructors included Don Snydier and Pete Benadento.

Participants in the drill remove the “victim” from the trench.When something goes wrong, this is what they’re going to do to save the victims, Depasquale explained.

Rescuers created a system to brace the walls of the trench to ensure there is no further collapse.

“We don’t want the rescuers to have more debris fall on top of them and create even more victims. This way we ensure their safety as they work to free the victims,” Depasquale said. “Actually, before this training, many rescuers would go in the hole and become part of the problem instead of the solution.”

Because the “victim” in the drill was located in an L-shaped area, it made the reinforcement a bit more complicated, Depasquale explained.

“State safety officials have been concerned about the fact that many injures and fatalities occur as the result of tunnel cave-ins,” he said.

The training program was designed to address that and make sure more people survived such an event.

“There has been a lot of education, such as Dig Safely NY, however, everybody doesn’t always do what they’re supposed to,” Depasquale added. “All around the state we’re getting calls more and more about trench collapses. Hopefully, due to this training, we will see more and more safe successful rescues.”

After watching the more than hour-long training session, Sawyer spoke to the participants about his experience.

“I just want to say thank you to you guys,” he told the firefighters. “Perhaps if they had the technology back then, I wouldn’t have been in such rough shape. I just want to say these guys are lifesavers. Anybody who complains that the firemen just sit around or anyone who wants to cut the fire department doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

“Any time they want to have one of these exercises, I’ll be there to watch. And, I’ll bring anybody I can bring. The firefighters do their job phenomenally well. Anybody (complains) about firefighters and any overtime, well guess what? They’re (really) worth it, every penny of it!” Sawyer added.

“Some times, it’s tough to talk to these guys about this stuff,” he pointed out. “They know what it’s like and it’s just as tough for them as it is on the victims some time, you know?”

Sawyer still works for Environmental Health and Safety.

“I came to work out here, October 1977, right out of high school,” he said.