Lt. Adam Moss had prepared for 10 years for these few moments.
When he needed clear thoughts, smooth movements and courage to dangle at the end of a rope and make a rescue in frigid chest-deep water and muck at the bottom of a hand-dug well, instincts gained through hours of grueling training kicked into gear.
Moss sank into the water next to a numb 11-year-old boy and asked him the one question he knew would get Emery Howard’s mind off the pain of a clearly broken arm.
“I asked him about his girlfriend,” Moss said.
From that point, Moss knew he would be all right.
Moss strung together a webbed harness, pulled the boy tight, clipped the harness onto his own, held him face to face and yelled out “Ready to haul!”
“Haul away!” came the response from above.
It took a team of at least two dozen rescuers – from two fire departments, the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office, county EMS, a helicopter pilot and an on-flight nurse – to coordinate Howard’s rescue Tuesday night from a situation veteran firefighters said they had never encountered before.
He had suffered a compound fracture to his upper arm and hypothermia, Lt. Tim Ridgeway said in a briefing after the incident.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Howard was released from Greenville Memorial Hospital, said Sandy Dees, a hospital spokeswoman.
In a statement issued through the health system, Howard’s family thanked Emery’s 12-year-old companion and first responders “for their quick actions that saved his life.”
“We are also thankful for the prayers and kind thoughts from many people,” the family said.
The ordeal began late Tuesday afternoon when Howard and a friend wandered onto the porch of an abandoned house at the corner of Highway 101 and Fews Chapel Road a short walk from their homes.
Howard jumped on what he thought was the porch deck boards but they gave way and he plunged into a well that lay hidden beneath the deck, authorities said.
His friend ran to a neighbor’s house to call for help. A three-person crew from Lake Cunningham Fire Department’s Station 2 arrived first.
Setting up a rescue
The crew knew they were responding to a fall, but they didn’t know it was a well, and they didn’t know the only way to get into the well was through the back porch of a house, said Lt. Kevin Hopkins, the incident commander for the rescue operation.
Hopkins had never seen anything like it in his 10 years with the department.
But his team had prepared for a situation like it.
Each firefighter at Lake Cunningham spends at least one day each month in training, and each one takes a state-issued course on rope rescues, he said.
Hopkins, coming from Lake Cunningham’s headquarters a little farther away, arrived on the scene with a crew of nine and a rescue truck filled with specialized equipment.
They set up an aluminum tripod on the covered back porch and began to string rope through the tripod, which gives leverage to counteract the weight of a firefighter and a patient that the rigging team would heave from the hole.
A firefighter with Lake Cunningham clipped his harness into the rigging and descended into the well.
The rope wasn’t long enough, so they added more, and then more again.
After about 40 minutes, the firefighter began to lose feeling in his legs, Hopkins said.
“It’s a common thing called harness-hang syndrome,” Hopkins said. “His legs started to go to sleep, couple that with the cold water he was in, and we decided to pull him up, more for his safety than anything.”
Hopkins decided to switch out the rigging crews due to the below-freezing temperatures that mixed with a biting wind.
In the meantime, one of the county’s Emergency Response Teams arrived from Piedmont Park Fire Department.
And driving the truck to the scene was Moss, who firefighters have nicknamed Peanut.
Second man in
Moss said he takes some ribbing in the firehouse for his slight frame. Hopkins said that is why they call him Peanut.
Moss’s size made him the ideal choice to drop into the well and complete the rescue. He harnessed up, clipped in and glided down to reach Howard, who had spent 90 minutes submerged to his shoulders in water.
“I was there ready to go and I got into the hole,” Moss said. “From that time forward all I was, was the hands and eyes of the command and operations team up top.”
Moss felt the walls close in. He’d had that feeling many times during confined space training. The 30 members of the county’s emergency response team, including Moss, spend two days each month training for rescues.
“We train for the worst of the worst,” Moss said. “And that’s the worst of the worst. The only thing I think we were missing was snow.”
The piece of wood that had collapsed on the porch had fallen and wedged Howard against one side of the well so Howard couldn’t move much, Moss said.
“When I entered, I had to go into the water with him, face to face, talk to him, calm him down, let him know that we’re going to get out of here, and then attach him to me,” Moss said.
When the pair emerged, Moss lay on his back on the porch with Howard, still attached, on top of him.
Moss deflected credit to Lake Cunningham, the rigging team and the ambulatory staff on scene.
“You don’t get 100 feet out of a hole without that being right.”
Moss said he’d never performed a well rescue before this week.
That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen again, Hopkins said.
Farms that once used multiple hand-dug wells for irrigation purposes have been sold and subdivided in recent years, he said. Those wells are still there, and no one knows where they all are located, he said.
Greenville County doesn’t have specific codes pertaining to wells, but considers open wells a public safety hazard, said Bob Mihalic, county spokesman.
Codes officials can cite property owners to secure an open well or have it filled in with dirt, rock or concrete, according to state Department of Health and Environmental Control standards, he said.
The property owner in this case wouldn’t be cited because the well was secured prior to the incident, Ridgeway said.
The state has kept track of newly dug private and irrigation wells since 1999, but has no numbers of wells installed before then, said Lindsey Evans, a DHEC spokeswoman.
Of 560,000 state residents who DHEC says use private wells, the department is aware of 128,000 wells that have been installed since 1999.
Thousands of other unused and unregistered wells could dot the landscape of homesteads across the state.
“It’s actually becoming more common in these rural areas and farming communities where you have these hand-dug wells,” Hopkins said. “You can have five or six of them on a property and people buy the land, subdivide it, don’t even know about it, and build houses.”