Seven Year Old Rescued After 90 Minutes
By Chief Bill Lellis (ret) Larkspur Fire Department
If you have been in the fire service for 20 to 30 years, you have responded to hundreds and hundreds of rescue calls to assist the community's citizens. Most of these calls have been lost over time. However, there is always one or two of those rescue incidents that linger in our minds' shadows. Something we see on TV, or a comment an old friend may say, and that call becomes a reality as if it happened yesterday. The rescue of a little seven-year-old boy from Corte Madera, who fell into a 16-foot foundation hole at the construction site of the Redwood High School and was stuck there for 90 minutes, is one of those memorable calls for me.
Our story takes us Redwood High on a summer afternoon in 1961, when a young lad and his friend from Corte Madera crossed over the railroad tracks onto the construction site of the high school in search of frogs. The site selected for this new school was referred to by the town people as “the slough”. It was marshland, inundated twice a day with tidal action from the San Francisco Bay. Scattered throughout the site were caisson holes for the gym's foundation. The holes were to be filled with steel forms and concrete the very next morning. Until then, they were covered with sheets of plywood to prevent anyone from stepping into one.
What could be more fun for a couple of 7-year-olds but spending a summer day on a wild animal hunt, looking for slippery amphibians? And if they were lucky, maybe they could bring one home to mom. What a pleasant surprise it would be, all wrapped up in a glass masonry jar. So, the hunt was on, turning over every rock or piece of debris that the disgruntled frogs could hide under.
In his joy of the search, our young frog hunter failed to see that one of the caisson holes was not covered. Before he knew it, Neil was stuck 8 feet down the hole with his arms along his side and pinned tightly against the walls. Like anyone in this situation, Neil began to cry - his cries could be heard throughout the construction site. Fortunately for Neil, there were still several workers on the site as his friend ran screaming and waving his arms to draw their attention to Neil's predicament. Once the construction workers observed the situation, it was evident that they were not equipped to attempt a rescue.
The Larkspur Fire Department was called and within minutes the first apparatus was on scene. It was not an engine with three to five men on board, but rather a GMC squad with a 150-foot live line attached to 400 gallons of water and one firefighter on duty. In the late '50s and early '60s, it was quite common in Marin County to have only one firefighter on duty. When they responded to calls they would be backed up with the town's volunteer firefighters. The only piece of rescue equipment on this rig was an 80-pound E&J resuscitator - not even a coil of rope. The driver, Assistant Chief Harder, realized the situation and positioned the squad a reasonable distance from where the construction workers were gathered looking down at Neil. The fear was even this light piece of equipment might send vibrations through the loose soil and cause Neil's situation to become catastrophic. The resuscitator head was lowered to Neil, and the sound of the oxygen flowing helped calm him down a little.
Fire Chief George Bartram lay down next to the hole and talked to him, telling him everything was going to be okay, but everyone knew Neil's situation was tedious. He could slip further down into the hole at any moment. The bottom few feet of the holes were filled with tidal water and each of the rescuers knew that one miscalculation on their behalf, or any shift in the ground in which he was pinned, and this little seven-year-old boy would be at death's doorstep.
The fear and pressure could be cut with a knife as both rescuers and neighbors began to gather. A quick size-up and evaluation of what type of equipment could be used to rescue little Neil was evaluated. Fortunately for Neil, and thanks to their quick thinking, a backhoe was on site along with its driver. It was acknowledged that they would dig a trench beginning a foot or so from the hole's edge so it would not drop any materials down onto Neil. The concept was that a rescuer could lie in the trench as it got deeper and would therefore get within reach of Neil. As one can see from the images, there was very little upon which to grab to assist him with his removal. The only thing the rescuers had was Neil's t-shirt. As the backhoe operator worked with laser-like precision, little did he know that in his lifetime this would be the most crucial trench he would ever dig.
The last foot of dirt was removed by hand, taking every precaution to protect Neil. Finally, the rescue trench was deep enough for Assistant Chief Clair Harder to lay down and reach the boy. This was a critical moment in the rescue; the simple touching of Neil could dislodge him and send him to the bottom. In one brief moment, Chief Harder made a desperate grab of Neil's shoulder. With a fist full of t-shirt and Neil, Chief Harder yelled out “I got him!” The pressure of the situation can be seen on the face of Chief Harder.
He slowly released Neil from certain death and miraculously brought him to the surface. This was a very emotional moment for the workforce and the bystanders, and cheers and shout-outs were the order of the day.
W hen Neil did not come home, his mother assumed he was at his friend's house. When she arrived to take him back for supper she was informed of what was happening to her son. She hurried to the construction site just as Neil was being placed on the ambulances gurney. Seeing her little boy covered with dirt and mud and crying (but without injury), she hugged him and kissed him and reassured him that everything was going to be all right. Mother and son were transported to Marin General. Neil was kept overnight for observation and was released to a happy mother the next day.
This rescue, to a young firefighter, has left an everlasting image that I have carried with me all of these 60 years. This was a situation that no textbook could illustrate.
“But for the grace of God”, all went well for little Neil Whitlow.
Photos by Bob Hax.
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