No Escape-His co-workers were trapped belowground with water rising. Safety rules said: Don’t go back.

 

Ali Swaby with fellow sandhogs (from top) Mike Salvador, John Kanash and Ken Schofield.

Dreaded Sound

Ten stories beneath a street in Fall River, Massachusetts, tunnel workers heard a loud whoosh of air and a clatter of rocks and debris. A second later, a Niagara-like roar of black water poured into the sewer-overflow tunnel they were excavating. I’m dead, thought Hoip “Ali” Swaby, 41, the father of two young boys. Trapped with him were co-workers Kenneth Schofield, a veteran heavy-equipment operator, and John Kanash, who grabbed the two-way radio at his belt. “Get the cage down here!” Kanash yelled, but then his radio went dead.

At the first rush of water, Swaby ran to check the sump pump and found it already underwater. In no time, the torrent rose to the men’s knees; as it reached their shoulders, the tunnel’s lights flickered off.

The three were trapped in a 16-foot-wide shaft with water raging down from an old sewer main 80 feet above them. Wearing heavy rubber rain suits and boots, it would have been almost impossible for even a strong swimmer to stay afloat for long in the frigid water — and Swaby couldn’t swim at all. The rock walls at that level were sheer. Above the rock, closer to the surface, the rain had turned the earthen walls into mud.

God, take care of my wife and kids, Swaby prayed. Separated from the others, the Jamaica-born workman flattened himself against one side of the shaft.

On the surface, crane operator Mike Salvador was preparing to lift an excavating machine out of the hole when he heard desperate cries. It was six o’clock on a darkening mid-October evening, and he couldn’t see more than 20 feet down. Thinking someone had been hurt or that a machine had caught fire, he swung the crane’s hoist and hooked a “man cage,” roughly the size of a phone booth, to lift the workers out. He lowered it, using a mark that had been spray-painted on the cable’s upper end to judge when the cage reached the proper level. 

Belowground, water was filling the shaft at a rate of more than 10,000 gallons a minute.

A Higher Code

Schofield hung six feet off the tunnel floor, grasping a bolt drilled into the wall. Kanash clung to a rock outcrop. He had unfastened his tool belt and tried to kick off his rubber mud boots to lessen his weight.

Swaby spotted a dim yellow shape bobbing in the blackness. It was the cage. He splashed his way over to it and clambered inside, yelling to his two co-workers to follow him. But in the darkness and the roar, they could neither see nor hear. Almost immediately Swaby felt the cage move, and he was being pulled up to the surface.

No! Swaby thought, holding on to the metal sides. His partners were still stranded. Even if the crew could get the cage back down in time, Schofield and Kanash might not be able to see it.

When Mike Salvador raised the cage to the lip of the shaft, he heard Swaby yelling for a flashlight. In safety training, especially in tunnel work, both men had learned the rule: Once you’re free and clear of danger, you don’t go back. In this case, the shaft could cave in. The lagging — retaining walls of wood and steel — might collapse, crushing Swaby or trapping him between planks and beams.

But partners in this tough trade feel the calling to a higher code. Sandhogs look out for each other. Swaby refused to desert his buddies. Someone threw him a flashlight, and he hollered to Salvador, “Send me back down! I know where they are!” Salvador lowered the cage.

By now Kanash and Schofield were up to their chins in water. This is it, Kanash realized, thinking of his wife and four kids. I’m gonna see what the other side is like.

Then a small, faint glow appeared in the blackness — Swaby’s flashlight. Kanash kicked away from his perch, took one stroke and felt a pair of wet arms grab him and pull him into the cage. Swaby hauled in Schofield next. The six-foot-four, 248-pound Swaby enveloped the guys in a bear hug as they ascended.

At the top, their co-workers at the floodlit construction site cheered and clapped, hugged and high-fived one another.

Later the men learned that in the heavy rain that had battered Fall River last October 19, a century-old brick-and-cobblestone sewer line had ruptured. An estimated 85,000 gallons of water rushed into the hole where the three men were working, filling it in just five minutes. The district fire chief said that if Swaby had hesitated even 15 seconds before returning to the pit, his buddies would have died.

For Swaby, the decision was easy: “They say it’s your grave if you go back. But it’s worse not to. I don’t know how I could have lived with myself if I’d left two guys to die.”

A Higher Code

Schofield hung six feet off the tunnel floor, grasping a bolt drilled into the wall. Kanash clung to a rock outcrop. He had unfastened his tool belt and tried to kick off his rubber mud boots to lessen his weight.

Swaby spotted a dim yellow shape bobbing in the blackness. It was the cage. He splashed his way over to it and clambered inside, yelling to his two co-workers to follow him. But in the darkness and the roar, they could neither see nor hear. Almost immediately Swaby felt the cage move, and he was being pulled up to the surface.

No! Swaby thought, holding on to the metal sides. His partners were still stranded. Even if the crew could get the cage back down in time, Schofield and Kanash might not be able to see it.

When Mike Salvador raised the cage to the lip of the shaft, he heard Swaby yelling for a flashlight. In safety training, especially in tunnel work, both men had learned the rule: Once you’re free and clear of danger, you don’t go back. In this case, the shaft could cave in. The lagging — retaining walls of wood and steel — might collapse, crushing Swaby or trapping him between planks and beams.

But partners in this tough trade feel the calling to a higher code. Sandhogs look out for each other. Swaby refused to desert his buddies. Someone threw him a flashlight, and he hollered to Salvador, “Send me back down! I know where they are!” Salvador lowered the cage.

By now Kanash and Schofield were up to their chins in water. This is it, Kanash realized, thinking of his wife and four kids. I’m gonna see what the other side is like.

Then a small, faint glow appeared in the blackness — Swaby’s flashlight. Kanash kicked away from his perch, took one stroke and felt a pair of wet arms grab him and pull him into the cage. Swaby hauled in Schofield next. The six-foot-four, 248-pound Swaby enveloped the guys in a bear hug as they ascended.

At the top, their co-workers at the floodlit construction site cheered and clapped, hugged and high-fived one another.

Later the men learned that in the heavy rain that had battered Fall River last October 19, a century-old brick-and-cobblestone sewer line had ruptured. An estimated 85,000 gallons of water rushed into the hole where the three men were working, filling it in just five minutes. The district fire chief said that if Swaby had hesitated even 15 seconds before returning to the pit, his buddies would have died.

For Swaby, the decision was easy: “They say it’s your grave if you go back. But it’s worse not to. I don’t know how I could have lived with myself if I’d left two guys to die.”

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