It took six agencies, about 150 rescue workers, and nearly five hours to dig worker Mario Flores out of the dirt that had him buried up to his waist Tuesday in a hole at least 20 feet deep outside an East Hills home. They used everything from shovels to sophisticated equipment to free him, giving him encouragement and support along the way when he was unable to move.
Wednesday, some of those rescuers described the painstaking process of getting Flores to safety.
Fire personnel arrive
Assistant Chief Adam Boll of the Roslyn Fire Department was one of the first to get to the East Hills site — within five minutes of the 11:21 a.m. call Tuesday. He saw two men in a deep hole: One trapped in the dirt and the other digging the victim out with a shovel.
Using hand gestures, Boll pointed to himself and other rescuers, letting the trapped man know that they were there to get him out.
“Through hand signals, he was expressing to us that he was concerned. He was tired,” said Boll, who works as a physician’s assistant.
Mirra, a full-time New York City firefighter, feared that Flores could be buried alive.
"The dirt from the hole was collapsing into the hole," said Mirra. "Ultimately, you can be buried alive in dirt.”
Two rescue workers were lowered into the hole, estimated to be 8 feet wide, to retrieve Flores’ co-worker, a contractor. Afterward, the rescuer measured gas in the hole to ensure there was adequate oxygen and no methane present.
“The environment was found to be safe,” Mirra said.
When Todd Smith, chief of the Bethpage Fire Department arrived, he realized the magnitude of the task and knew he didn’t have enough firefighters trained in trench rescue. He enlisted the help of the Freeport Fire Department, one of just three Nassau fire departments with that expertise.
A vacuum truck sent by the Town of North Hempstead to remove the dirt had to be parked close to the edge of the hole, causing a lot of vibration, which, in turn, loosened dirt.
A joint decision was made to call Con Ed to bring its vacuum trucks, which carry attachments that allow the extension to reach the deep hole, estimated at between 20 and 35 feet.
“The biggest problem we had from the very beginning was the dirt. It was like beach sand, the most unstable of soil. Every time you dig a hole around his feet or his body, we would have a side wall cave in and it would fill up with dirt again.”
Richard Resto, assistant chief with the Bethpage Fire Department and an emergency medical technician in critical care, went down into the hole to assess Flores’ condition.
"We smiled. We said hello. ... I was happy he was talking to me," said Resto.
Rescue workers lowered a bucket with medical equipment, including tape, an arm splint and a needle and IV bag, that Resto used to keep Flores hydrated and prevent him from going into shock.
With little room to maneuver, Resto said he and another firefighter used shovels to dig. At one point, they freed Flores’ right leg. “He got his right leg freed. He bent it up to his chest. He was standing there like a pelican,” Resto said.
“As we were digging, we would get more of his body exposed, but earth was falling in on him. He was being swallowed by the earth.”
At one point, Nassau firefighters had removed almost all of the dirt around Flores, and only his ankles were covered. But before they could lift him out, dirt poured around him.
“It was a very frustrating operation,” because of the falling dirt, the chief said.
Con Ed Crews
At about 1 p.m., Vinny Bourne and Orrin Anderson pulled off the Long Island Expressway in a Con Ed vacuum truck. A fire department escort rushed them to the site.
“I’d describe the scene as organized chaos,” said Bourne, 27.
Another Con Ed vacuum truck pulled up, followed by Paul DiDomenico, 32, a supervisor, who leaned over the hole and communicated by hand signals with firefighters below.
“He was telling me, “Go left, right, go up, down, as the sand fell — it was fine sand, and kept pouring down,” he recalled.
Firefighters put plywood bases around the hole, and set up “tag lines,” tying rope around each others’ waists and holding it so no one would fall in. They built a wooden box to protect Flores from cascading dirt and sand, which ultimately allowed him to be pulled free.
DiDomenico recalled the gleeful faces around him when Flores emerged at 3:54 p.m. “It was a huge sense of relief. We were smiling, knowing the guy could go home and spend the holidays with his family.”