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Buried alive!

  • "It was like a thud hitting me," explains Dan Reigel as he recovers at his home. The Tamaqua plumber survived a cave-in June 28 that buried him beneath nine feet of dirt.
    "It was like a thud hitting me," explains Dan Reigel as he recovers at his home. The Tamaqua plumber survived a cave-in June 28 that buried him beneath nine feet of dirt.
Published August 06. 2010 05:00PM

Dan Reigel bends down low in order to position a reciprocating saw. He's working deep below ground level between walls of earth nine feet high.

The 49-year-old plumber is inside an excavation in the front yard of a private residence on Lombard Street in Tamaqua, a serene neighborhood of 1960s-era bi-levels.

Reigel stoops low to cut off another piece of pipe in preparation for a new sewer line.

His two employees Richard Greim and Robert Montersin are doing prep work inside the home's cellar. Outside, backhoe specialist Steve Horst watches Reigel busy working in the narrow channel. The freshly dug trench is dark and damp, but it's nothing new for Reigel. He's done the same kind of job week in and week out for the past 31 years. He simply wants to connect the new line to the main pipe at the center of the street.

But today is different.

Today, Dan Reigel will stare death straight in the face. In one split second, Reigel will be completely buried, entombed nine feet underground without oxygen. His ears will turn blue and he'll gasp for each precious breath. This is no ordinary Monday. This is a day that changes lives forever; a day of miracles.

Reigel told the TIMES NEWS that the workday on June 28 began uneventfully. But then, sometime after 10 a.m., a few pebbles rolled innocently into the pit, followed by a sudden, massive cave-in.

"It was like a thud hitting me," he says, still recovering from a concussion and other injuries that left him moments from certain death.

Reigel had been working in a bent position, leaning forward, when the walls around him collapsed. He says everything turned black in an instant and he couldn't breathe.

"I was in a fetal position. I couldn't move my arms or my legs," he explains. "My left leg was bent toward my back in an awkward position and my right knee pushed into my chest. I could exhale but not inhale. It was like I was paralyzed. I felt like my whole body was being squeezed."

Reigel says faint sounds traveled through the earth above him. He could barely hear voices yelling.

"I heard Steve (Horst) holler for my two employees. I heard something about calling 911."

Reigel recalls a feeling of futility and helplessness, and then a sense of slowly passing on, or suffocating.

"I felt myself fading away. I honestly thought I was going to die."

His thoughts turned to his large family, he says, among them two children in college and a loving wife, the former Carol Woodward.

He wanted to see the kids graduate. He wanted more time with Carol. It was too soon to die, he thought. Too soon for everything to be over.

"I had promised her we'd grow old together. But I thought 'I'm about to break my promise,'" he says, fighting back emotions.

What Reigel didn't know was that Greim, Montersin and Horst were working feverishly to dig him out as other rescuers rushed to the scene. Some used bare hands, others used shovels. With every ounce of strength, they dug at the location where they figured Reigel was buried. Miraculously, they picked the right spot.

"I felt a shovel hit my back," Reigel recalls.

Then miracle #2 happened. As it turned out, next-door to the collapse lives Michael Bright, 55, a paramedic with the Tamaqua Rescue Squad. Bright heard the dispatcher's page for an emergency at his neighbor's address, and just happened to have an oxygen canister on hand. He rushed to the scene and called out to his wife, the former Marianne Rother, to run to the garage for the oxygen.

Bright says Reigel's head been uncovered by that time, but he was in discomfort and having trouble breathing.

"He cried out in pain because there was a rock pushing against his leg."

Bright administered oxygen as he and Reigel's co-workers continued to dig.

"I put the oxygen on flush-flow," explains Bright, a procedure which allowed it to flow into Reigel's lungs to maximum advantage. The oxygen kept Reigel from falling into unconsciousness.

Then came miracle #3 two additional able-bodied men with boundless courage. Jay Hollenbach, Jr., and Jay Stidham, Jr., members of Tamaqua Rescue Squad, arrived on scene. The men jumped into the dangerous pit and began digging, even as additional cracks formed in the trench walls. Hollenbach is a plumber and familiar with working within the confines of trenches and tunnels. He says he knew the situation was grave.

"His head already had been dug out by the time we got there," says Hollenbach. "He looked lethargic. There was blood on his face and it already had begun to thicken."

With the added manpower, the men finally were able to extricate Reigel from the dirt, but not before some harrowing moments.

"We could have lost them, too," says Chief Dave Mattson, Tamaqua police, noting the heroism of all of the rescuers.

Even at that point, the ordeal hadn't ended.

"I realized I was out but I was having a hard time breathing. I didn't think I had much time," explains Reigel.

"He had impending doom," says Bright, describing a sense of futility or perhaps final despair.

Reigel was rushed to a waiting helicopter and airlifted to St. Luke's Medical Center, Bethlehem.

In addition to a concussion, he suffered trauma to various areas of his body, a cracked kneebone that will require surgery, and temporary loss of vision due to the concussion and broken blood vessels. Today, he is undergoing physical therapy and continues to improve, although he still suffers aches and pains from the weight of the dirt and resulting compression injuries.

Reigel's wife believes the early availability of oxygen was a key to survival.

"The oxygen helped to get him breathing normally," says Carol.

Reigel credits Bright with knowing exactly how to pull him out of the trench without causing additional injuries.

Nobody is quite sure how long Reigel was buried before rescuers reached him. But everyone agrees it was just moments before their efforts would have sadly turned into recovery instead of rescue. Without oxygen, every second matters, according to medical professionals.

"The brain dies in eight minutes," says Dr. Craig J. Krause, D. O., Tamaqua Family Practice. "Eight minutes is the window of opportunity to rescucitate someone."

Krause says other factors can play a role as well, such as in Reigel's situation. "I understand there was some chest compression, too," Krause adds.

Reigel's health is improving, but it's a slow process.

"I look at myself in the mirror and I look OK. But I don't feel right," Reigel says. Up until the time of the cave-in, he was in perfect health. "I didn't use my health insurance for 29 years," he adds.

Still, he doesn't complain about his aches and pains. He sees a larger picture. Dan Reigel was buried alive, and lived to tell about it. He focuses on the positive, especially the inspiration of those who saved him.

"I'm so thankful for the amount of people who came to my rescue and the Lombard Street residents who comforted my wife."

In fact, miracle #4 is reserved for wife Carol, who continues to recover from the stress of the situation and her own serious health concern.

Carol had suffered a critical medical emergency in June. She underwent life-saving surgery just days before the cave-in.

The Reigels are experiencing a sense of renewal. They realize that both of their lives were saved within a matter of days.

"People are saying that God left the two of you here for a reason," says Carol.

Reigel, who attends St. John's United Church of Christ, says the experience "made me realize to go to church more. My eyes opened a little bit on life itself."

He says he now understands that everyday life is too fast-paced for most folks. And he thanks God for the gift of survival. He offers these words to everyone reading this story: "Appreciate what you have and take time to enjoy it. You've got to slow down and appreciate what you have because it can all be taken away."

In the blink of an eye, life can be a matter of moments, seconds and miracles.

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