"Between a rock …" " the hidden dangers of irrigation | TheFencePost.com
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"Between a rock …" " the hidden dangers of irrigation

as told to
Debby Hollenbeck
Deer Lodge, Mont.

This is not one of our “typical” feature articles, but it is important enough to put in the front of the Fence Post in order to raise awareness about the dangers that can arise while doing the daily chore of irrigation.

“John, you’re in serious trouble and you have to stay calm,” I said to myself when my foot was sucked into a 6-inch irrigation diversion pipe. The ditch I sat in filled with water straight from the melting snow on our nearby mountain. After I yelled twice I knew I needed to save my strength.

It was Mother’s Day. My wife, Carole, wanted to see a quilt show in Philipsburg. Even without her promise of fudge from the Sweet Palace, I’d enjoy the drive through the Flint Creek Valley in Western Montana.

About noon I told Carole I would first check the ditch diversion that operated our new irrigation pivot line. In my rubber irrigation boots I rode my two-wheel motorbike up the road and into my field on the hill. After I parked my bike I looked down at Gold Creek, my home for all my 64 years. Beyond St. Mary’s Church there were a few houses, barns, a store, and a school scattered around our house. A half-mile to my right was the ranch of Richard Thomas who shared the water supply for this ditch.

Walking on the bank of the new ditch, I noticed a collection of debris that could plug its 6-inch exit pipe because the grate was not yet installed.

When I kicked it away, the strong suction drew my right foot into the pipe. I sat in the ditch. My boot was gone, and the pipe shoved against my knee. To relieve the pain, I pushed my leg farther into the pipe, almost to mid-thigh. Then I dug into the bank until there was room to straighten my bent left leg.

When the freezing water was stopped from leaving the ditch, it started rising around me. It was now at neck level, and I don’t enjoy water. I reached to my left to clear away the debris in the overflow pipe. Even though the water dropped 4 inches, I was still trapped.

My watch ” a gift from Carole on our 25th anniversary six years ago ” was still running.

“It’s 12:30 now …” I told myself, “she’ll be looking for me by 2:30; I can make it that long.”

Then I had a long talk with God. I wanted to see my boy, Keith, his wife, Amy, and my grandson, Noah, who would be 2 in September. I wanted to walk my daughter, Jennifer, down the aisle in July when she married Rick. And I wanted to see my future grandkids. Also, there were lots of things Carole and I planned to do together.

As I prayed, a feeling of peace settled over me. By then I was getting weak trying to stay seated. High in front was a large boulder I wrestled down to support my back and keep me upright.

Now there was a new problem ” staying awake until help arrived. Our family lost dad when I was young. Running our Hollenbeck ranch and looking after mom fell to me in my early 20s. I thought about mom, who had lived to be 92.

“You were always there to look out for me. I could walk across our yard to your home and we’d talk over our problems. It’s Mother’s Day ” please help me now, mom!”

My whole body was shaking even though I tried sitting still. If I held my hands up I could see my blue fingertips turning white.

Checking my watch kept me going.

“I can make it,” I thought again. When I looked up at 2:30, I saw the top of Carole’s head, then all of her coming into view! She was worried and decided to check on me.

The lid off the culvert caught her attention so she drove into the field where my bike was parked. Then she climbed farther up the hill and found me.

She asked, “What are you doing in there?”

To convince Carole to leave in order to help me I said, “Listen to me, honey, listen to me! You have to go to Richard; tell him to divert the water coming into this ditch, then dial 911.”

She ran to the car, drove to the Thomas ranch, and was able to persuade Richard to go to the head gate. Richard returned with a rope to pull me out, but I told him he could start digging to remove the pipe.

Soon a Highway Patrol car and an ambulance arrived. Two patrolmen came into the ditch and joined me in the mud. The water slowed to a trickle in about 15 minutes but it took another half hour to get me out.

After they disconnected a section, they lifted me with the pipe still on my leg because of the suction and swelling. One young man felt space inside the pipe so they tried to remove it. Even with my help it took three people to pull until the suction was released and it came off with a whoosh.

Then they cut my clothes off, wrapped and loaded me into the ambulance, and drove to the Life Flight helicopter in my lower field. We flew 60 miles west to St. Patrick’s Hospital in Missoula. As Carole rode with a friend she called Keith and Jennifer who started traveling to join us.

At the hospital they put me in a thermal cover under heat lamps and added warmed blankets. Since I had been close to hypothermia it took a lot of poking to insert the port for medications and liquids. I continued to shiver for 10 hours.

The doctors were concerned I would lose my leg because they didn’t find a pulse in my foot and I couldn’t feel them touch it. To release the pressure, they took me to surgery to cut the sheathes surrounding the muscles on my leg. Another surgery was scheduled on Wednesday to close those openings. After spending the night in Intensive Care, I was surrounded by my family as the doctor touched my foot and asked, “Can you feel this?”

When I said “yes” we all believed it was a small miracle.

The doctors said with my strong heart and low blood pressure, I was in good condition. Also it helped that I work outdoors on the ranch every day, haven’t smoked, and am not thin. The EMT personnel told me the ditch water was 38 degrees. Had I known a person could only survive 45 minutes at that temperature, I probably wouldn’t have lasted so long.

On Friday I came home to Gold Creek. In the months that followed I recovered to experience a few of the things I had struggled to stay alive for ” walking Jennifer down the aisle in July, traveling with Carole to Branson, Mo., in the fall, and being with Keith, Amy, and Noah to welcome my grandson Luke in January 2005.


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