‘I couldn’t breathe’: Indiana man trapped in trench up to shoulders for nearly 4 hours

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NOBLESVILLE, Ind. (WXIN) — An Indiana man is thankful to be alive after he was rescued Saturday afternoon nearly four hours after a trench collapsed at a construction site, trapping him up to his shoulders.

“You know a lot of people get a life-or-death scare that lasts 40 seconds. Mine lasted four hours,” said Dustin Leake, of Shelby County. “Four hours. I was scared for my life.”

Leake and his younger brother, Devin, both construction workers, had been onsite since earlier Saturday morning. The pair, who have worked in construction for more than a decade, said everything was safe to start the day. They said what happened next was an unfortunate “freak” accident.

Officials said construction workers had been pumping water out of a trenched area where they were preparing to install a sewer pipe. According to officials with the Indianapolis Fire Department (IFD), workers said Dustin Leake was stepping off of a ladder onto what he believed was firm ground when it gave way under him. In seconds, he was up to his shoulders in heavy debris, and rising water was posing a threat.

“The ground came out from underneath of me and before I knew it, I was pinned up against the plate,” said Dustin Leake.

Crews from multiple agencies then began the hours-long operation to free him. He was trapped about 18 feet below the ground, officials said. During the operation, crews pumped 25,000 gallons of water from the ditch.

The Noblesville Fire Department (NFD) responded around 10:30 a.m., and the IFD Trench Rescue Team arrived to assist and prevent any further collapse.

“With trench rescue, we’re dealing with unstable soil there,” said Kevin Jones, IFD special operations chief. “We’re called because there’s already been a collapse. They were working that area and they had a lot of water and they were trying to de-water it to do their construction work, so that makes it more complex for our operation as well.”

Jones said crews had to remove bystanders trying to help so as to prevent further risk of something else happening.

“That’s one of the critical things is people jump in there, but there’s already one collapse, and we don’t want to have more victims,” he said.

During a trench rescue, Jones said they classify the soil based on its cohesiveness.

“Worst case scenario, it’s like 60 feet per square foot of depth,” said Jones. “So what that does is when it gets around the body, it can crush and make it hard to breathe, so the victim was very fortunate he wasn’t trapped much higher and that he was still in the soil. He was able to maintain an open airway and breathe for the duration of the operation.”

Dustin Leake said there were several times when he had difficulty breathing due to the weight of everything pressing against his chest and body.

“I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t talk, and you know, I just started slowing my breaths down,” he said. “There’s a steel plate I was going under and I was starting to roll under and it was crushing me.”

Jones said during the operation, Devin Leake worked to keep his brother calm.

“He was right there. So to have something so tragic like that happen in front of you and that closeness, that’s tough, but he was instrumental in maintaining the victim’s mindset for us and keeping him positive, you know when things get tough or he was in a lot of pain,” said Jones.

“They would talk to each other and kind of regroup and get back in the right mindset for us to be able to help,” he continued.

Dustin Leake said, “When I got freed up a little bit and I could actually breathe and talk, I hollered, ‘Get Devin over here.'”

The brothers said this brought them closer than ever. “He’s the man, he is the man,” Dustin Leake said of his brother. “He knows I love him.”

Devin Leake joked that his brother was trying to throw orders at him while he was trapped in the trench. “He was yelling at me, trying to get me to tell the fire department what to do to get him out,” he said.

The brothers said there were a few moments when their hope began to fade.

“It’s hard to put in a grasp of what happened, and it all just plays back, it’s all still just playing back, you know,” said Devin Leake. “I thought he was gonna get buried. I thought he was gonna get buried alive. There was one point in time I really didn’t think he was coming out of there.”

Dustin Leake also recalled, “The ground was just sucking me in like it was just trying to push me down.”

Rescue crews were finally able to free Leake around 2:06 p.m.

“I got up there, and oh, it was an instant sigh of relief. I mean, it was unbelievable,” Dustin Leake said. “Hats off to IFD and Noblesville. They did an awesome job shoring behind me, making sure no matter what, they were gonna get me freed, but in the same sense, get me freed where I’m not afraid to get hurt again.”

Crews got him up a ladder, out of the trench and eventually to a helicopter, where he was transported to the hospital for evaluation.

“Any time we have a positive outcome like that, it’s a sense of relief,” Jones said. “Everybody is so focused on working and problem-solving and trying to make this work that when we finally get that accomplished, it’s just a huge sigh of relief. Everybody can take a step back, everyone calms down and we can process what happened.”

The brothers said it was incredible to witness the way all of the fire departments worked together as one and treated a stranger with such kindness during the entire ordeal. Leake hopes to reunite with the crews who he said saved his life so he can thank them in person.

“They were awesome, beyond awesome,” Dustin Leake said. “There were a lot of people involved, and I want to thank everybody.”

His brother added, “They went to work quick, quick, quick and didn’t stop.”

Jones credits the joint effort between agencies that led to a positive outcome. “We consider him very fortunate,” he said of Dustin Leake.

He added that it was “just about a week or two ago” that IFD did a joint training session with Noblesville and Westfield, Indiana, firefighters.

“It always seems like we do training on that type of incident, and it happens shortly after,” he said.

According to officials, there were no other injuries in the accident.

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