Down in the trenches; Safety speaker highlights seminar’s first day

By Bob Buckel | Published Wednesday, October 3, 2012

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“Everything I felt, down in that trench, fighting for my life, happened in less than a second, because I wasn’t willing to make safety a priority. One second is all it takes to change people’s lives forever.”

Eric Giguere (pronounced ji-GAIR) is a member of one of the world’s most exclusive clubs – those who have been buried alive and lived to tell the tale.

Tuesday, he shared his story at ENERGY worldnet Inc.’s Annual Conference and Expo at the Decatur Civic Center. The Decatur-based company hosted dozens of safety professionals from energy-related fields throughout the area for the two-day event.

Giguere, with five years’ experience as a union laborer, was on his first job, helping install a 12-inch water main in rural upstate New York. It was Oct. 4, 2002 – he’d just gotten married six days earlier and was due to leave on a Caribbean honeymoon that evening – when he hopped down into a 6 1/2-foot deep trench to inspect the pipe.

Suddenly the trench walls collapsed, and he was buried under a ton of soil.

Unable to breathe under the crushing weight, he said his fear began to subside and a feeling of warmth and comfort overcame him. He was dying.

Meanwhile, up above, his co-workers were frantically trying to dig him out. They used a backhoe to carefully get as far down as they dared, then dug by hand until they found him, gray-faced and not breathing.

The buddy he drove to work with dug the dirt out of his mouth and administered CPR while others continued digging to free him. Finally, he was carried out of the trench to an ambulance, then taken by helicopter to a hospital where he went into the ICU as his body and head swelled to almost twice their normal size.

His buddy had to call his new wife and tell her there was only a small chance he would survive.

“Next time you think you have to save a little time out on a job site, think about who’s going to make that call,” he said. “Forty or 50 seconds earlier, he had been in the trench with me. If he’d still been there, we’d have both been dead. He had a two-week-old baby.”

Giguere’s company, Safety Awareness Solutions, is his life’s work now. His mission is to make safety unabashedly personal for the people he speaks to.

“Money isn’t the reason we go to work,” he said Tuesday. “We work for our wives, our husbands, our kids and grandkids, our parents, our brothers and sisters. They’re why we get up and go to work every morning.

“Safety training is not for the company you work for – it’s for you, and the people you care about the most, to make sure you go home from work that day.”

Giguere said his company “didn’t give a damn about safety” and neither did he.

“The reason I got buried in the bottom of that trench was because I had a terrible attitude about safety,” he said. “I was the 27-year-old cowboy who was bulletproof. I couldn’t care less because I couldn’t get hurt.”

Besides, he noted, “Who am I to tell a guy who’s been digging trenches for 30 years – longer than I’ve been alive – that he was doing it the wrong way?”

Giguere went through the impact of his accident on everyone involved, from the nine or 10 people who had to get down in that unsafe trench to dig him out, to his wife, his mother and his sister who stood at his bedside in the ICU, trying to get him to wiggle a toe.

“They were forced to come in there and see me with dirt still caked on my face, my head and body so swollen that my mom did not recognize me, and ask me to wiggle my toes, give them a thumbs-up,” he said. “I didn’t do any of that – as soon as the medicine wore off, I started to scratch, claw, kick and fight. I thought I was still in the bottom of that trench.

“I put them through that. It’s my fault they had to see that.”

The accident eventually cost him his marriage.

“The guy my wife had married six days earlier, he never came out of that trench,” he said. “She had to learn to love somebody completely different. And ultimately, that didn’t work. It was just too hard.”

In addition to all the physical aftershocks, Giguere said he went through years of therapy to overcome the psychological effects of being buried. He also has three “holes” in his brain where tissue died because of the lack of oxygen, and that affects his short-term memory.

“Nine years later, I still hate the dark,” he said. “I sleep about three-and-a-half hours a nght. I can’t forget what it was like to be in the bottom of that trench.”

And even in the town where’s he’s lived his whole life, he’s now known as “the buried guy.”

He relates it all back to safety on the job.

“When you shortcut safety, you’re not shortcutting your company, or management, or the safety guy – you’re shortcutting yourself. In the end, the company’s going to go on, the job’s going to go on. It’s going to be you and your family at home, paying the price.”

For Eric Giguere, safety is personal, and it always will be.

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