Editor's Note: This series of articles examines the business and human costs of trench-collapse fatalities in the United States. Click here to see the full set of articles in this series. It was going to be an easy fix.
The backhoe operator had clipped a small drainage pipe, and water poured into the 6 ½-foot trench. As the operator scooped the water out of the trench, Eric Giguere watched.
No problem. They’d get the pipe fixed, and Giguere would be off on his honeymoon. He went into the hole, knelt down to inspect the pipe and found himself fearing he was taking his last breaths when the trench collapsed on him.
“I kind of saw it out of the corner of my eye, and I let out a loud scream,” Giguere recalls.
The dirt filled his eyes, ears and mouth. It wrapped around his body like a straitjacket, getting tighter with every attempted breath. The earth squeezed until his skin turned blue, the weight methodically cracking each of his ribs, puncturing a lung and bursting the blood vessels in his eyes. It stripped him of oxygen and killed pieces of his brain. In the span of 10 slow minutes, the dirt changed Giguere, too. Shovels, CPR, a defibrillator and years of therapy were needed to bring him back. But Giguere knows he’s lucky. Most workers in trench collapses don’t survive. Those who do walk away are forever changed.\
“I knew I was going to die”
The trench that collapsed onto Giguere didn’t start out as much. On that October day in 2002, the crew began installing water lines into a 4-foot trench. As they continued down the road, an inspector said they needed to put more cover on the pipe. The trench deepened gradually to 5 feet. “When we reached the 5-foot mark, we were supposed to stop, assess the situation and put a trench box in,” Giguere says.
But the boss stepped in. At that point, Giguere’s construction experience was primarily on heavy highway jobs rather than in trenches. He knew his boss, however, had worked in trenches for 30 years – without a trench box. “Nothing had ever happened to him, which made us comfortable,” Giguere says. Eventually the trench reached 6 ½ feet deep, and that’s when the backhoe operator nicked the drainage pipe.
Since all the other crew members were retrieving pipes, picking up loads of stone and digging out additional trench, Giguere entered the trench alone. Giguere doesn’t remember much about being buried alive. He figures he was conscious beneath the soil for about 90 seconds. He was filled with dread. Would his co-workers even know where to start digging?
“There came a point where I knew I was going to die,” Giguere says. “There wasn’t a pain to it. It was just gasping for air. … I was panicked and I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to die because we didn’t do this the right way.’”
A nearby co-worker had heard Giguere’s scream. He alerted the others. Giguere blacked out. “These guys had to make a hard decision,” Giguere says. “They knew if they used shovels they’d never get to me in time. But they knew if the operator used the machine that he might hit me with that bucket and kill me.”
The crew decided to do both. They used the machine to remove the first few feet of dirt, then shoveled the rest of the way down. Giguere says the crew “had no idea where I was,” but they were able to uncover him after about 10 minutes. By the time they got to him, he was bleeding from cuts delivered by the shovels. He had no pulse.
A co-worker administered CPR for 11 minutes until an ambulance arrived. An EMT shocked Giguere with a defibrillator, jumpstarting his heart before continuing to perform CPR. He was placed on life support and air lifted to a hospital. Finding dirt in his lungs, doctors told his family he probably wouldn’t survive.
“And if I did, they said, I would almost definitely be brain dead,” Giguere says. “The fact that I’m alive? I’m a walking miracle.”
Giguere’s short-term memory is impaired, part of the brain damage he experienced. He also suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. He began cognitive therapy immediately and continued the sessions for nearly three years.
“I was afraid of the dark and tight spaces,” Giguere says. Movie theaters were especially troubling. “It took me 12 years just to be able to swim again.”
The stress of recovery and the financial burden of being unable to return to work bore heavily on Giguere’s marriage. He and his wife eventually divorced. Giguere never went back to work as a construction worker. But he would return to the industry in a different capacity.
The death of SupermanAs he retrieved a dropped shovel in the 13-foot trench, Dave Spurr heard a co-worker shout. The trench gave way.
“It’s completely black,” Spurr recalls. “When they dug me out and got me far enough where they could grab my arms and pull me out, my chest felt like you had dropped 2,000 pounds of weight on top of it.
“Everybody says it feels like getting hit by a truck, and that’s exactly what it felt like.”
Spurr was buried in a matter of seconds, and for what he estimates was about five excruciating minutes, he clung to life, unable to move or breathe. It was death without the dying.
Though the collapse happened 16 years ago, Spurr, 52, now owner and president of Spurr Company in Paso Robles, California, vividly recalls the details.
“I had been in business about seven years at the time. I had a crew of about 13 people, and I had been in a lot of deep trenches,” Spurr says. “Thirteen feet was not a big deal to me. I had done it all my life.
“You feel like Superman, like nothing can happen to you.”
Spurr and his crew were running a sewer line down a hill to tie it into a mainline along a street. He was operating a backhoe while his crew worked at the tie-in point inside the trench. The crew had placed shoring jacks in the part of the trench where they were working, to protect against collapse. Spurr was extending the trench, digging about 50 feet away from his crew, when he noticed a square-point shovel had fallen in.
“I said, ‘Heck, I’ll just hop off the backhoe and go into the trench real quick and grab that shovel,” Spurr says. As he grabbed the shovel, a laborer who was checking grade alongside Spurr noticed a crack forming on top of the trench. He shouted an alarm down to Spurr. Spurr considered running toward his crew with the hopes of making it to the shoring before the soil collapsed. But that seemed too far away, so he went back the way he came.
He wasn’t quick enough.
“I had my arm bent up as if you were raising your hand when it covered me. I figured I could move my hand up to signal where I was, but I couldn’t move my hand at all,” Spurr says.
The earth pinned his head and body against the side of the trench. The clay-like soil that had voids in it gave him three or four breaths worth of oxygen. But the benefit of air was a double-edged sword. With each breath, the soil that stretched at least 2 feet above his head constricted tighter around him.
“You go to take a breath and you can’t take another because of the pressure of it,” he says. “You breathe out and you go to breathe in, and the dirt settles in against your stomach tighter.”
His terror increased when he heard the backhoe fire up. Would the machine’s bucket kill him as it searched for him beneath the soil? “The only thing that saved my life was that I had a guy with me who knew where I was in the trench,” he says. Eventually the crew uncovered a portion of Spurr’s hat and began digging in front of him, releasing the soil’s grip from his chest and face.
“I was right at the end of not being able to breathe anymore,” he says. “I thought I had taken my last breath.” When he emerged from the trench, the pain set in. “My whole body hurt, and the first thing I said to them was, ‘You gotta get me to the hospital.’”
A week later, the terror of the incident came rushing back during a follow-up hospital visit. “I had to go and do some MRIs. They did a lot of neurological tests because the lack of oxygen for that amount of time can damage your brain,” he says. “I couldn’t do it. They actually had to get me into a bigger machine and give me some pills to relax just so I could go through it.” “That’s what’s really weird about the whole thing,” he adds. “What it does to your life afterward. Before, I was never claustrophobic. Now I am.”
“I need to get out of this business”A dive and a pipe saved Joe Porchetta’s life. Now the owner of GMP Contracting in South Brunswick, New Jersey, Porchetta survived a trench collapse as a 20-year-old laborer at his uncle’s company during a summer break from college.
“We were installing a 36-inch storm pipe in the ground, and we ran into existing utilities that were in the way,” Porchetta explains. “There was a trench coming across our trench, so we weren’t cutting through virgin soil anymore.”
Porchetta says the utilities were in the way of the shoring. “So we took a chance and we skipped over that section instead of placing shoring, and we tried to continue laying pipe.” As the crew worked, the old trench caved in.
Two of Porchetta’s uncles had eyes on the trench from the surface and yelled down to him when the collapse started. When he heard the shouts, he quickly dove into a pipe.
The pipe shielded much of Porchetta’s body from the crushing soil, though it still rushed around him covering him up nearly to his chest. “I couldn’t move,” Porchetta says. “My cousin was watching traffic maybe 300 or 400 feet down the road and he heard me screaming.”
Porchetta was trapped in the pipe for about an hour as his crewmates slowly moved away the dirt by hand while one of his uncles gently used an excavator to move much of the material from atop him. The collapse occurred on Porchetta’s last day of work before returning to college. “I remember thinking, ‘I need to get out of this business,’” he says.
Get rid of that “stop-being-a-whine-ass” attitudeThough all three trench-collapse survivors experienced different circumstances, each of them has walked away with the same message: the “old way” of digging trenches is not the right way.
“There’s a certain confidence and macho-ness to working construction,” Giguere says. “We need to get rid of that ‘stop being a whine-ass’ type of attitude toward safety. When you get yourself in a situation where you’re 6 ½ feet underground with dirt crushing the life out of you, you’re just a scared little boy or a scared little girl wishing you could start the day over.”
His experience gives Giguere credibility in his current consultant role at Safety Awareness Solutions, Geneva, New York. In 2017, he made 164 presentations, urging workers and their supervisors to take trench safety more seriously.
“I show up in the work boots I was buried in,” Giguere says.
Spurr and Porchetta say their experiences shaped how they run their businesses. Both men make every decision through the lens of safety. “Our safety program since this happened has been above and beyond the norm,” Spurr says. Porchetta says he has walked away from more than one job that he felt was putting his crews in danger. “I know what I do pretty well, and if I don’t feel comfortable with it, I’m not going to do it,” he says. “My message to my guys is that no one’s life is worth it. If it’s not safe, you don’t do it.We regroup, we figure out how to make it safe. I can’t replace a life.”
“We were in a situation one time where one of my guys was excavating and there were issues with the trench,” Porchetta continues. “We stopped everything. I told the guy to fill the hole back in and start over.”
Giguere says there are still parts of him buried in that trench in Upstate New York. “When people get in accidents, you always read that they were ‘treated and released.’ But what does that really mean?” he asks. “My bones healed. But the things you put your family through because we didn’t do things the right way? Those things don’t go away. They don’t forget it, and neither will you.”