One breath away from death

Reader's Digest Editors

Daniel Miller had promised his wife, Saimaa, he’d never leave her. But could he stay alive until help arrived?

When Saimaa Miller first set eyes on her future husband, Daniel, she was attracted to his stoicism. A friend of her builder in Bondi outside of Sydney, Australia, he’d joined them for drinks the day his dog had died. He is the sort of man I’d like to be with, she thought. A few months later, she walked out of her Bondi naturopathy practice and he was standing outside, waiting for her. She knew at that moment he would be her partner for life.

They soon moved in together and before long, in 2007, had found the perfect property in Charlotte Bay, on the New South Wales mid-north coast. Daniel, a qualified builder and landscaper, could develop the land into a yoga retreat and one day they could imagine their children running around its grassy paddocks.

“Don’t you die before me,” Saimaa would often joke. Her mother had passed away when she was just 13, and it was unimaginable that she could be left alone again.

Daniel at his Charlotte Bay home in New South Wales, Australia

“I promise,” Daniel replied. Several years later and the dream had come true. Their children, Kalan and Leilani, were nine and four, and the family had made the property their permanent home, with Saimaa commuting three hours each week to see her clients at her Bondi clinic.  

That’s where she was that day in February last  year. With the children at day care and the school swimming carnival, Daniel, 45, thought he’d finish the landscaping around a dam about 150ft from the house. He’d been meaning to tidy up an old rock garden against the dam wall.

Using his three-ton mini-excavator, Daniel started to shift some of the larger boulders and plants. It hadn’t rained for a long time and the water in the dam on the other side of the wall was very low. He steered the excavator to the edge of the dam and lowered the bucket to drag out a load of mud.

Just then, the excavator started to slide with the weight. Used to working with heavy machinery, Daniel wasn’t alarmed when the excavator slipped in its tracks. He quickly lowered the bucket to the ground to act as a counterweight and stabilise the excavator. As he did this, the wall gave way and the excavator slid towards the water.

In sheer panic, Daniel pushed himself away from the machine to try to get clear of its weight. Man and machine crashed into the muddy floor of the dam, the excavator tipped onto its side and the roll bar landed on his back just below his shoulder blades. He was pinned down under the water.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” Daniel screamed to himself, pulling his body forward with all his might to try to get his head above water. He wriggled and squirmed until the roll bar was across his lower back, but he couldn’t get it past his buttocks.

Jamming his hands into the mud, Daniel arched his back and pushed as hard as he could until his head was above water. He then grabbed a full breath of glorious air. I can’t die first, was all he could think.

"As painful as it was to keep pushing himself high enough to breathe, there was nothing else he could do"

Daniel was fortunate to have landed facing the dam wall, with his chest on a step where the water was only 20 inches deep. Towards the centre of the dam, his legs were floating in deeper water. Still, he couldn’t move and 20 inches of liquid was plenty deep enough to drown in.

Daniel’s arm was wedged under his chest in a push-up position, similar to an upward dog in yoga. If he pushed himself up with all his strength, he could just get his chin out of the water.  

He had to calm himself. A surfer for many years, he knew the only way to survive in the water was to slow down and think rationally. He pushed away the panic and began to think.

The excavator was still running, spewing hydraulic oil and diesel into the water. Eventually the oil would flood the engine and the noise would stop. Then who would notice?

No one else was on the property. Saimaa was nearly 200 miles away in Sydney, and Mel, the next-door neighbour, about 2,000ft away, would be at the swimming carnival. He cursed himself for cancelling the guy who was supposed to come and mow the grass that day. Maybe he would turn up anyway? Were there any courier deliveries due? he wondered.

Most likely, the first people to miss him would be his son’s teachers when he didn’t show for school pick-up. They wouldn’t come to the property to look for him; they would just send Kalan to after-school care, and the alarm wouldn’t be raised until after 6pm. It was the same with Leilani’s preschool. It was now just past 11:30am. That means I have to stay alive for six or more hours, he thought.

Mel might come home around 3pm. Could he hold on till then? The weight of the roll bar didn’t seem to be evenly distributed along Daniel’s back and he didn’t feel like he was carrying the full weight of the excavator. That might mean he could dig himself out. As he propped up his body with one hand, he used the other to dig underneath his pelvis and legs, pushing the mud to the side.

It was a near-fatal mistake. The machine sank further as he dug, and Daniel realised with horror that now he could only manage to raise his eyes and nose above the waterline.  If he used all his strength he could lift himself far enough up to clear his mouth, but he couldn’t do that for more than a few minutes at a time—it was too painful. He had to conserve energy. Daniel knew he could be here for a long, long time.

His options were simple. He could either fight or die. If he died, the carers at his daughter’s day care would bring her home. They’d see the excavator overturned in the dam—perhaps his boots would be floating on the surface. He couldn’t let that happen. As excruciating as it was to keep pushing himself high enough to breathe, there was nothing else he could do.

Daniel wasn’t new to endurance. He’d done years of open ocean paddling. The trick was to chunk the pain into manageable blocks. To last in this position for six hours was unimaginable. But he could do it for 60 seconds. So he started to count.

He set his hands in one position, counted to 60 and waved one hand back and forth in the water to pass time and keep calm. At 55 seconds he’d allow himself the luxury of knowing there were only five seconds to go. Then he’d shift his weight into a different position and start again. It was like he was giving himself a break every minute.

As the engine finally sputtered and cut out it became very peaceful in the dam. With his ears submerged, all Daniel could hear was the rapid ticking of the machine. The sun shone on his head, his lips were at the waterline and he could see the oil and fluids floating on the surface. When debris came too close to his nose he’d blow a bubble to gently push it away.

The counting worked. For more than an hour, Daniel watched a grasshopper walk up a blade of grass and down the other side. Letting his thoughts wander, he played out different scenarios of how someone might find him. He thought about the sump pump, less than 300ft away, that could drain the dam and save him. He willed different people to come, even trying telepathically to convince someone to pop in for a visit. Above all, he thought, Saimaa must not hear he was dead.

Saimaa had often nagged him about taking up yoga. He’d always insisted that after ten minutes he was bored. Now, his arched back was screaming and his arms were throbbing. How long has someone stayed in an upward dog position before? he wondered. It was best not to think about the pain.

As the time dragged on and the excavator continued to slowly sink, Daniel felt a slow rising panic, made worse when he remembered that rain was forecast that day. Just 20 millimetres would be enough to kill him. He could fight for hours, but there were some things over which he had no control.

But there’s no use dwelling on them, he told himself. If he could stay calm and make good decisions, he would have a reasonable chance of staying alive.

At times emotions would well up and he’d laugh hysterically. Was he really going to die in the mud at the bottom of his own dam? But then he’d calm himself, breathe through his nose and get back to counting. The engine continued to softly tick.

The scene that greeted emergency workers was of Daniel submerged, with his nose just above the waterline

By what must have been around 2.30pm, staying alive had become almost robotic. Breathe, count, stay calm. Daniel’s ears were full of water and oil, and he could only just hear the engine ticking. He had no idea where the neighbours were, but he was getting tired. He would have to start calling for help. He’d give it another few blocks of 60 seconds and then have a go.

At the appointed time, Daniel summoned all the strength he had left to push himself high enough out of the water to clear his mouth. He yelled at the top of his lungs for ten minutes. “Help, help, help!”

Shouting was exhausting. He stopped, full of adrenalin, bursting with anger. He struggled to free his pelvis, furious no-one could hear him.

Then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught a movement. He turned his head and, sure enough, he could make out his neighbour Mel’s blue sedan approaching along the driveway. He imagined her parking her car, getting out and looking around. He pushed himself up and yelled again. There she was, running around the corner with her phone in her hand.

That was when he knew. Thank God. You’re going to live, man.

Mel rushed down to the edge of the dam. “What do I do?” she cried.

Daniel pushed his mouth out again. “Ring Reg, get the neighbours!” he shouted, then resumed his position.

The nearest emergency services were 30 minutes away in Forster but Reg, another neighbour, was close by. Within minutes he arrived and jumped into the dam to hold Daniel’s head. Another neighbour who’d been alerted by Mel arrived and ran to fetch a snorkel from the house, but it was impossible for Daniel to breathe through it.

Mel used her phone to search for “What to do when someone is trapped in a dam.” At the top of the list was the instruction that no one else should enter the dam—it was too unstable. Reg got out as other neighbours arrived.  

On a nearby property, real estate agent Charles Degotardi’s pager went off. As captain of the local Rural Fire Service, he rang the station and was told someone in the area was trapped under an excavator in a dam, just up the road from the property he was now inspecting. He’s probably already dead, Charles thought.

There was no time to fetch the fire truck, so he phoned his senior deputy and drove around the corner to the Miller property. He was the first emergency services officer to arrive. He couldn’t believe the scene that greeted him. A bunch of people were gathered at the dam, all staring at Daniel’s nose and eyes sticking out of the brown water.

The local fire truck arrived within seven minutes. The absolute priority was to lower the water in the dam, so Charles and his colleagues grabbed the portable pump and set up the hoses over the side of the dam. As the pump kicked into action, they maneuvered the truck to the side of the dam and inserted a larger-volume pump as well.

Within a few minutes, the water level had dropped below Daniel’s nose and ears, and he could hear what was being said. Everyone was concerned about the excavator moving and crushing him further. It had fallen onto a boulder, which was keeping it from sliding to the bottom of the dam. But with only a few centimetres to go, it was clear the three-ton excavator was about to slip off the large rock.

Police and ambulance began to arrive, followed by Fire and Rescue from Forster. Daniel watched them as they approached the edge of the dam one by one—the look of total disbelief on their faces that he was still alive.

As the water dropped, it became clear how incredibly lucky Daniel had been. Had the boulder not been there, he would have been crushed. As it was, he was pinned in soft mud, yet miraculously, the full weight of the machine was not on him.

In a rescue operation that lasted more than an hour and a half, emergency services fixed a cable onto the boom of the excavator to stabilise the machine, and then winched it to lift the weight off Daniel.

By the time the water reached five centimetres above his pelvis the pumps were beginning to clog up with mud, but there was enough visibility to start digging Daniel out. They cleared the mud from underneath his legs then hauled him out by his shoulders.

Daniel was hypothermic, completely caked in mud and his lungs and ears were full of oil and diesel. But he was euphoric. He was alive.

Back home with his family, Daniel says that his options were simple: he could either fight or die

Saimaa was in Bondi seeing clients when she noticed a missed call from her neighbour Mel. I’ll call back later, she thought. Then another came from a second neighbour, Julie Henry. Something must be wrong.

“Something’s happened to Daniel,” Julie told Saimaa, who could tell by her voice that it was serious. When she learned what had happened, Saimaa remained calm. Daniel had promised he wouldn’t die first. She knew he would be OK.

Saimaa called her mother-in-law and then spoke again with Julie Henry and her husband John. It was as if the whole community were working as one. The kids were picked up and taken to Mel’s, while Saimaa jumped in her car to meet her husband at their local hospital.

Daniel spent three days in the trauma ward. He had swelling in his back and an infection from the fluids he’d inhaled, but he was otherwise unharmed. His back pain lasted several weeks. Saimaa got her wish and he started yoga to help release the knots, and before long he was back to work and surfing.

Looking back, the Millers see that day as a positive experience. They were overwhelmed by the dedication of their local community and the emergency services.

“There is so much negativity in the world at the moment, but this was a story of believing in life and wanting to live,” says Saimaa. “It’s about people helping each other. It’s about mateship.”