NOBLESVILLE, Ind. — A Shelby County man is thankful to be alive after he was rescued Saturday afternoon in Noblesville, 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. “Four hours. I was scared for my life.”
Dustin and his younger brother Devin, both construction workers, had been on site since earlier that morning. The two have worked in construction for more than a decade and said everything was safe to start the day. They say what happened next was an unfortunate ‘freak situation.’
Officials said construction workers on site 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 on scene said Dustin was stepping off a ladder on to what he believed was firm ground, when it gave way under his feet.
“The ground came out from underneath of me and before I knew it I was pinned up against the plate,” said Dustin.
From there the hours-long operation by crews from multiple agencies to free him from the trench began. Dustin was trapped about 18 feet below the ground, officials said. During the entire operation, crews pumped 25,000 gallons of water from the ditch.
The Noblesville Fire Department (NFD) responded to the scene around 10:30 a.m. Saturday, and when they learned that someone was stuck in a trench, they called for assistance from a tactical team. The IFD Trench Rescue Team responded to assist and prevent any further collapse as they worked to free Leake.
“With trench rescue we’re dealing with unstable soil there,” said Kevin Jones, special operations chief for the Indianapolis Fire Department.
“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,” he said.
Jones says crews arrived and began to protect the scene and remove bystanders trying to help, because during a situation like this, that only further increases the risk for something else to happen.
“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.
At a scene where a trench rescue is involved, Jones says 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 soil he was able to maintain an open airway and breathe for the duration of the operation.”
Dustin said there were several times where 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.”
Dustin said he watched rescue crews work tirelessly for hours on end to free him and that they are the reason he’s alive.
“There was a lot of people involved and I want to thank everybody,” said Dustin. “They went to work quick, quick, quick and didn’t stop,” Devin added.
“We consider him very fortunate,” Jones said. He credits the joint effort between agencies that led to a positive outcome.
“Just about a week or two ago we actually did a joint training session with Noblesville and Westfield firefighters just again to start that process of working together, so when we show up on scene we have those familiar faces, we have those relationships and that’s key to the outcome of these events.”
IFD also recently conducted trench rescue training, less than one month ago.
Jones said IFD has responded to a lot of high-profile events over the last five years, where rescues were involved.
“It always seems like we do training on that type of incident and it happens shortly after,” he said.
According to Jones, having that combined training gives the agencies an opportunity to build trust and know each other’s capabilities. In this operation, he said IFD was there to support NFD and that he feels it went very well.
“Falling back to those relationships that were established, those were critical to the teamwork that was displayed,” he said. “For special operations or technical rescue, that’s the stuff that we train for.”
NFD also conducts training two times a year that focuses on trench rescue operations, says Trevor Hash, NFD division chief.
Dustin and Devin said it was incredible to witness the way all of the fire departments worked together as one and treated him — a stranger — with such kindness during the entire ordeal.
On the other hand, Jones said something rescuers witnessed during the operation was the way that Devin worked to keep his brother Dustin calm and communicate with him as he was trapped.
“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.
“He’s the man, he is the man,” said Dustin. “He knows I love him.” Both brothers said this brought them closer than ever before. Devin joked that Dustin 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,” Devin said.
“When I got freed up a little bit and I could actually breathe and talk, I hollered, ‘get Devin over here,'” said Dustin.
The brothers said there were a few moments when their hope began to fade. They said it’s still difficult to think about just one day later.
“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. “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 also recalled, “The ground was just sucking me in, like it was just trying to push me down.”
Their worries faded away and they felt the moment of relief around 2:06 p.m. when rescue crews were able to free Dustin.
“I got up there and oh, it was instant sigh of relief. I mean, it was unbelievable,” Dustin shared. “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.”
Rescue crews also shared that moment of relief after they were able to get Dustin up the ladder, out of the trench and eventually to the helicopter, where he was transported to the hospital for evaluation.
“Once they were able to get him removed he was able to be out and he was ready to be out about an hour before that,” said Jones.
“Any time we have a positive outcome like that it’s a sense of relief. 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.”
“They were awesome, beyond awesome,” Dustin said.
He hopes to reunite with the crews who he said saved his life so he can tell them ‘thank you’ in person.
According to officials, there were no other injuries in the accident and there were several other agencies that responded to the scene to assist during the tactical operation.