The Nucleus Of John Chapman

Watching my dad fall 30 feet into a pit

I watched my dad fall the full 30 feet like it was in slow motion.

I watched the Boom Truck flipping over, with the only thing stopping the truck from falling down the 30 feet as well, was the long extended boom holding the truck at the top of the 30-foot pit.

It was surreal.

Unfortunately, I was not able to stop it.

I had tried. But to no avail. My dad would not listen.

How did it play out? Like this:

We were on the job site. What we were doing was setting extremely heavy concrete sections of pipe. I don’t know the weight of the pipe, and I don’t know the load rating of the Boom Truck. I think we were way out of spec, handling way more weight than we should have been. Even under optimal conditions, it was a very delicate operation. Moving the pipe, lowering, all required finesse, otherwise the Boom Truck would turn over.

We were very close to being finished, as I recall. We were setting and pushing the pipe into the hole that had been dug by air tools painfully by hard work. My hands along with other ran the air tools that dug and hammered through dirt, lots of shale and indeed some hard rock as well.

My dad was the site foreman, effectively. So, this was his job site, he was the decision maker. He could get things done, but he was always pushing the limits of safety and common sense. This day would prove to be no exception – but his poor decision-making process would catch up with him.

My dad positioned the Boom Truck at the edge of the pit. Several feet of dry black gumbo type soil above the rock layers that the pit was carved out of. The requirements to even move these heavy sections of pipe with this Boom Truck required that the load was kept very, very close to the truck. Otherwise, the weight on the boom would tip the truck right over. Because digging of the pit was done with a very large backhoe, the dirt surrounding the edge of the pit was no longer a firm packed mass. It was now disturbed, with fractures, certainly not stable. Even if it WAS stable, it wasn’t suitable for supporting the weight of the Boom Truck outrigger that was used to help stabilize the truck.



So, my dad extended the outriggers and pushed the outrigger onto the soil. Here were the problems:

1) The foot of the outrigger was only about 8 inches by 12 inches. This puts a phenomenal amount of weight in a small area under load.
2) The soil under the foot of the outrigger was disturbed and not stable.
3) The soil under the foot of the outrigger even in an UNDISTURBED state could not support the pounds per square inch without distorting and collapsing.
4) The equipment being used was under capacity for the weight.

So, all of us worker bees watched as my dad extended and seated the outriggers.

I watched the outrigger push into the dirt, and of course knew this was not gonna meet the requirements. I had spent many, many hours moving heavy loads of dirt, pipe, etc with the Boom Truck as well. I was quite aware.

I had to make a decision. Say something, or not?

I chose to say something. So, I went over to my dad, and pointed out that the outrigger was settled into the dirt, and was not sufficient to support the weight.

He argued. I argued.

Finally, he capitulated. He pointed out a big chunk of shale (shale is a soft material compared to rock and breaks easily) to put under the outrigger.

The right thing to do for an outrigger pad, regardless if the equipment was under capacity, was to build up the pad using large timbers. The objective is to spread the weight out across a larger area. Hard to do using a rock.

So, he pulled up the outrigger, I put the piece of shale in position. My dad lowered the outrigger on top of the rock. I watched the shale push into the dirt, I watched the dirt move. I knew that the dirt was not stable, and that the shale would break.

Again, I tried to stop this sequence of events from turning into disaster. My dad argued, I argued.

My dad finally told me to get out of his face. I suspect that my dad felt that giving into my insistence would mean that he would lose face. My dad is a very, very proud man, and not very willing to look at facts.

So. I backed off.

I went to the other edge of the pit, and watched.

My dad navigated the boom over to the pipe, and picked it up. He swung it over the pit, and started lowering the section of pipe.

As I anticipated, the expected issues all came to fruition.

First, the shale broke in half.

This did several things, not any of them good. First, this caused the outrigger to immediately drop 8 to 12 inches. This had an immediate impact. First, the outrigger now impacted the dirt at speed. This had the effect of shoving the dirt aside, like a ram. Second, this dropped the heavy pipe way more than 12 inches, as it was on a boom, which would amplify the distance. And, as soon as it dropped, and the cable stopped it, the weight felt by the boom truck outrigger would increase and would be dramatic. And indeed, as the additional weight was felt by the outrigger, the outrigger plunged into the black soil faster and deeper.

To my dad’s credit, he was already immediately dropping the pipe as fast at the spool would go, and at the same time lowering the boom. This was absolutely the right thing to do, to avoid the Boom Truck turning over under normal operating conditions.

But this wasn’t normal conditions, as the load was so great, the speed at which the cable was being released just wasn’t sufficient.

My dad realized this, and was already looking to make an exit. He released the controls, turned and by all appearances looked like he was trying to dive under the truck so it would flip over, and leave him safe. However, when he released all the controls, this stopped releasing cable, this stopped the lowering of the boom. So the effects of the truck being pulled by the heavy pipe were immediately amplified.

As he dove, and was starting to head under the truck, the boom truck was sitting about almost a 45 degree angle, and the outrigger pushed into the soil, and shoved a huge amount of dirt down and out which fell into the pit. At the same time, the diesel fuel tank came into contact with my dad, and pushed him over the edge of the pit.

I watched a large amount of dirt fall, and right above the dirt falling was my dad. Down to the solid rock surface down below. Fortunately, there was so much dirt that fell, that was still full of air, that my dad had somewhat of a cushion (if you can call it that) when he landed. Still, falling 31 feet equates to 30mph. Imagine that you are in a car going 30 mph, and slam into a wall. Yeah, this was worse.

The Boom Truck continued to turn over, and was now completely upside down.

The City Inspector was over in his truck, watching the full event. I ran over and told him to call an ambulance, that my dad had just fallen down the pit. He got on his radio equipment and sounded the alarm.

I ran over to the ladder and rushed down. I got to the bottom, and looked at my dad, not knowing if he was going to be alive or dead. I got to the bottom, I reached him, he was alive. He looked at me, and I could tell he was having a hard time breathing. I asked him if he could breath, he shook his head no. However, I could see he was breathing, and wasn’t in any hurry to render mouth to mouth.

I stayed there with him til the EMT’s reached him, and started working him over.

I climbed up out of the pit, and watched all the EMT’s do their work. I was angry. Angry at the pigheadedness of my dad refusing to make the right decision for all the same reasons that he made pigheaded decisions as us kids were growing up.

You’d think that this would change. But as far as I can tell, this has made no difference. My dad at age 68 appears to be the same. None the wiser after a lifetime of experiencing the impact of making the same kind of decisions.

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  1. Avatar
    Jeremiah Chapman

    Nov-28-2016 at 4:25 am

    For the record, I am proud that you decided to argue with him in an effort to save his life.

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