JOHNSTOWN, Colo. (CBS4) – A construction worker who was helping install sewage lines for a new housing development drowned Friday night after firefighters say the 25-foot-deep hole he was working in collapsed and trapped him. The worker, who has not been publicly identified, was stuck in the dirt as water continued to rise quickly.

Efforts by coworkers and first responders to free the man fell short due to the unstable dirt and rising liquids.

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(credit: Loveland Fire)

Loveland Fire Rescue Authority Battalion Chief Tim Smith said trench walls, which are large metal barriers which help prevent such tragedies, were not being used at the time of the collapse.

Smith said multiple agencies, and more than 65 firefighters, responded to the scene in an effort to try and save the man.

“Very early on we knew it was what we call a trench rescue,” Smith told CBS4’s Dillon Thomas. “There were three of his coworkers that were already in the hole trying to help him out.”

Smith said the worker was in a round hole which was shape much like a funnel. He was stuck at the bottom of the circle with water quickly rising.

The man’s coworkers said he was trying to install a sewage pipe when the ground gave way, trapping his feet. As water in the hole continued to rise those on scene were unable to dig him out or stop the rising water.

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(credit: Loveland Fire)

“(The collapse) trapped him in that position, and the water kept on rising, and they weren’t able to get the water out,” Smith said. “It was very dangerous for us to operate in. We were quickly realizing this was going to become a recovery.”

Heavy rescue teams from as far as western Loveland were dispatched to the scene to try and access the worker. Firefighters would normally use makeshift wooden trench walls and air struts to stop the collapsing soil. However, due to the trench being a circular shape and not a rectangle, those devices were all-but useless.

“They’re designed to hold the dirt back. Then we use air struts or wood to help stabilize that. That is typically what we would use, but we didn’t have a standard trench,” Smith said.

Though it is impossible to know if they would have saved a life, Smith said the use of a common construction site trench wall would have increased the odds that the worker would have survived the collapse.

“(A trench wall) wasn’t in place, so we didn’t have any safety devices on scene,” Smith said. “They don’t prevent everything. But, they slow down what could be a catastrophe.”

The death, which happened in the developing Thompson River Ranch neighborhood near Interstate 25 and U.S. 34, marks the second fatal trench collapse in that region of Northern Colorado in the past three years. In 2018 two men were killed in the neighboring town of Windsor when a trench collapsed during a housing development project.

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Trench walls were not being used in that collapse either.

Dillon Thomas