It was 2002 and I’d been working as a labourer for about five years. I was 27 and pretty 1)macho—how could anything bad ever happen to me? On this particular job, I was digging a 2)water main with four other guys. One man would dig out the 3)trench, the rest of us would put in the pipes and the 4)digger behind us would then fill it all in with earth. It was like one long trench, and we were continually moving forwards, laying around 1,000ft of pipe a day.
There’s something called a trench box—a metal case that holds back the sides of the walls—used to stop the walls from 5)caving in when you dig deeper than 5ft. Some companies use them, some don’t—ours was one that didn’t. I thought I was 6)bullet-proof and didn’t care if we had safety equipment or not.
We were making good progress, and getting well-paid, so I never really considered the dangers. All I could really think about was my honeymoon—I’d got married a week before and had delayed going away for a few days so that we could finish the job. Now it was Friday, about 1pm, and my new wife and I were meant to be flying to Canada later that day.
I was down in the 7)ditch, which was about 6ft deep and 2ft wide, 8)mopping up some water—we’d hit an underground 9)drainpipe. My colleague had gone back up to the truck to get some tools, and 30 seconds later the trench caved in on me.
I screamed, but I couldn’t be sure they heard me, although I found out afterwards that they did. In less than a second, I was completely buried by earth from the walls, as well as the 4ft or so of dirt that was piled up on each side. I panicked, fighting and struggling to clear the soil, but there was too much of it. I was covered. I couldn’t move or see anything but blackness.
Afterwards, they told me I’d had 2,00010)lbs of dirt on top of me, the equivalent of being hit by a truck going at 70mph. The weight crushed my chest and broke my ribs. I could feel myself starting to 11)suffocate. I was desperate to hear someone call my name or the digging machine start up, but there was only silence. At that point, I thought, “There’s no way I’m going to get out.” I was going to die right there in the bottom of that ditch. After about a minute and a half, I12)blacked out.
By then, my colleagues were trying to dig me out. They knew that I was down so deep that if they started to dig with shovels, they’d never reach me in time. They also knew that if they went in with the digger, they might cut me in half. Less than 10 minutes later, they managed to get to me by 13)scooping off some of the earth with the machine and then going in with the shovels.
The first part of me that they spotted was my right knee 14)sticking up, because the weight of the dirt had pushed my head down between my legs. When they got me out, they thought it was too late; I was 15)blue and had no pulse. 16)Technically, I’d died down there, but the ambulance crew managed to save me: they put 17)paddles on me, shocked me and got my pulse going again. I was taken by helicopter to hospital and put on a 18)life-support machine, but my chances of surviving were pretty 19)slim. My family was told that, if I made it, I’d probably have severe brain damage. Yet within a week, I was progressing and starting to make a good recovery.
It felt like a miracle at first, until the reality of what had happened began to 20)sink in. I started to have nightmares. I was scared of confined spaces and especially the dark. The accident changed everything, particularly my marriage. You can’t go through something like that and be the same person. I rapidly discovered that I wanted different things from my life. I found it hard to plan for the future because I felt so strongly that it could be taken from me at any minute.
I knew I couldn’t go back to my old job—instead, I went to college and got a degree in conservation law. Now I travel the world giving lectures on what can happen when you take risks. I talk to people about safety, and I want them to understand it’s not worth taking shortcuts in any area of their lives. We got comfortable doing things the wrong way for a long time, and then all of a sudden we got caught—and that can happen to anyone.