In a silent room at the National Safety Council (NSC) Congress and Expo in Orlando, Fla., Eric Giguere shared his harrowing story of being buried alive more than 6 feet deep in a trench.

In the fall of 2002, Giguere was working with a small crew to install a sewer line in upstate New York. At first, their work involved installing pipe in 4-foot-deep trenches, a relatively safe operation that did not mandate special safety equipment. As the job progressed and the terrain and work conditions changed, however, that 4-foot trench gradually deepened to 4-and-a-half feet, then 5 feet, and so on until Giguere was working in a 6-and-a-half-foot-deep trench with no safety equipment.

“I’m a guy who got comfortable doing things the wrong way,” Giguere told NSC attendees. “I’m your average, hardworking guy. Essentially, I am any of you people in this room.”

Because the crew had been at work on the line for a few months, hadn’t experienced any problems and were making good money, they saw no need to address possible safety concerns. Oct. 4, 2002, “was just going to be another day at the job,” according to Giguere.

But it wasn’t just another day on the job. When a digging operation damaged a draining tile and dumped water in the ditch, Giguere and his fellow laborer jumped in to scoop out the water. Giguere’s coworker then climbed out to retrieve a piece of equipment while Giguere remained in the trench and began cleaning around the sides of the pipe.

Moments later, the trench collapsed.

In the Dark

“Without warning, in an instant – it was immediate – that trench caved in on me,” Giguere said. “It was pitch black, I couldn’t see, I couldn’t move. I was 100 percent helpless.”

For roughly a minute, Giguere remained conscious at the bottom of the trench after the dirt piled on him. When he exhaled, the dirt crushed his chest. He was trapped, and he could no longer breathe.

“I remember being down there kicking, scratching, clawing, fighting, and all that dirt kept packing in tighter and tighter,” he recalled. “I couldn’t move. I kept waiting to hear sound of a machine or a laborer calling my name, but I heard nothing. There came a point that I realized I was going to die right there at the bottom of that trench.”

Fortunately, the other laborer had heard Giguere’s initial scream when the trench collapsed. Now he and the other crewmembers had to make an excruciating decision: They could use the backhoe to scoop several feet of dirt out of the trench to reach Giguere, or they could grab shovels and start digging. Using the backhoe would remove the dirt much faster, but they risked striking Giguere with the equipment and killing him. Shovels would allow for safer digging, but would take much longer, meaning they likely wouldn’t reach Giguere in time to save his life.

“What choice do you make?” Giguere asked. “The bottom line is, that’s a terrible situation to put someone in. We forced a guy who’s working for $100 to $125 dollars a day to make a decision about my life. It’s a terrible situation to put someone in, and we forced it on him.”

In the end, the backhoe operator elected to remove the first few feet of dirt with the machine and, fortunately, did not strike Giguere. Next, the crew dug with shovels until they finally reached their buried coworker.

“I had no pulse, I was blue in the face, I had dirt caked into my mouth,” Giguere said. “Imagine putting someone here in that room in that position because you were trying to save time [by taking a safety shortcut].”

Giguere estimates he was in the trench for about 10 minutes. After receiving CPR from the crew operator and shocks from emergency personnel, Giguere recovered “a slight pulse,” was put on life support and rushed to the hospital.