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International Operating Engineer - Summer 2018

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  • Iuoe
  • Operating
  • Engineer
  • Corps
  • Dozer
  • Callahan
  • Engineers
The quarterly magazine of the International Union of Operating Engineers

Safety & Health Trapped!

Safety & Health Trapped! Operator survives 2.5 hours submerged in dozer cab “The radio in the dozer wasn’t working so I played songs on my phone, which I had picked up. I played Frank Sinatra, ‘My Way,’ because I thought I’d like to go out that way. I watched videos of my kids, of my daughter, Kloe, singing. I cried. THINKING HE COULD swim to shore if his arms were free, Local 139 member Robbie Gunderson hurriedly removed his safety vest, then his sweatshirt, then a t-shirt, and readied himself to jump from the sinking Caterpillar D6 dozer. “I was getting ready to bail. I was thinking I had a little bit of time,” he said later of his near-death experience shortly before 8 a.m. May 21. Fortunately, Gunderson’s mind rejected the thought and recalled a scene from his MSHA training. His new thought was, “… them corny videos.” An equipment Operator in one of the videos Gunderson once had watched at his local union’s training center had decided to flee a dozer cab in an emergency situation. The man survived, however, his legs were drawn under the machine and crushed, leading to a double amputation. The takeaway from the videos offered Gunderson a path to survival in the opposite direction of jumping. The message was, “Stay in the cab, stay alive.” Gunderson stuck with his training. He stayed put. He would remain seated in the cab for the next 2.5 hours while the 25-ton dozer settled under 12-15 feet of sand, water, silt and clay in a detention pond at the Hi-Crush Partners LP sand mine near Whitehall, Wisconsin. That brownish mixture flowed quickly into the bottom of the cab as soon as the dozer entered the pond. For reasons unknown, the mix stopped rising at a level slightly below Gunderson’s knees. Incredibly, the cab stayed air-tight even though its windshield “spidered” as soon as the dozer submerged. Because his cell phone had fallen from its cup-holder perch in the cab, the Operator reached for a two-way Midland radio on board and called fellow Local 139er Scott Anderson, who was on shore. Foreman Todd Schmidt, also a 139er, remembers an exchange of words as Anderson quickly reported news of the accident to Schmidt. “Robbie said: ‘Help! Help! I’m going in the pond,’” Schmidt said. “And Scottie told him, ‘Just relax. Save your air. We’ll get to you.’ ” processing site, according to media reports. At about 7:49 a.m., Gunderson was dozing sand toward the pond when his machine slid forward and would not stop sliding. He shifted the dozer into reverse, but had no success in halting the slide. “I thought I was gonna die,” he said. Gunderson is a personable soul; a jokester. He has retained a quirky sense of humor despite his ordeal. He said he does not consider himself a religious person, yet he said he prayed that the water would stop coming in and it did. “I started talking to my grandpas (Gene Sosalla and Eric Gunderson) who are gone, and to my first wife, Amanda, who died 13 years ago of cancer. I told them I wanted to join them, but not this day. “I told Scottie, ‘Just tell my kids I love them.’ It was best that I was talking to Scottie. With other guys I would have been joking around, burning up oxygen.” To further pass the time, Gunderson scrawled “family” on the dozer dashboard. Outside the cab, bubbles rose in a watery mixture Gunderson likened to “chocolate milk.” Above this murky and claustrophobic world, an army of rescuers assembled. Divers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and law enforcement officers tried to organize a rescue plan. A Flight-for-Life helicopter arrived. A number of those in this gathering knew Gunderson and the Gunderson family, from nearby Independence. They were determined to save one of their own, Schmidt said. As minutes elapsed into hours, a decision was made to breach a dike separating the pond from a tributary of the Trempealeau River, and to drain the enclosure, Hi-Crush Chief Operating Officer Scott J. Preston told the media. Schmidt and Chad Gerke, another 139er and an owner of Gerke Excavating, manned Cat model 349 and 390 excavators to open the dike, Schmidt said. Ultimately, about 10 million gallons were released, according to published reports. Meanwhile, news of the accident arrived at Evergreen Elementary School in Holmen, where Gunderson’s wife, Lindsay Prokop, teaches second grade. She drove to the mine. A relative, Randy Niedercorn, who is a former Trempealeau County sheriff, cautioned that she likely would get there and be asked to identify her husband’s body. Anderson and Gunderson had a history of butting heads, Gunderson said. On this day, the pair set their past differences aside. “Scottie stayed on the radio, talking to Robbie the whole two and half hours,” Schmidt said. “At times Scottie said, ‘Save your air. Just key the mic so we know you’re with us.’ ” Gunderson’s assignment had been to push 15 piles of “reject” sand into the pond. He and other Operating Engineers there work for Gerke Excavating Inc. The pond spans an area approximately 100 feet by 600 feet, Schmidt said. It’s part of a 1,447-acre sand mine and “I told God I’d be a better dad, a better son, a better husband. But I wasn’t gonna stop drinkin’ … [left] The dozer in which Local 139 member Robbie Gunderson was trapped is revealed after a detention pond into which the machine slid was drained. This photo shows the dozer and a boat used in the rescue. [above] Local 139 member Robbie Gunderson. [article & photos] Dave Backmann, Local 139 At the clay pond, Schmidt finally had reason for hope. He spotted the dozer’s GPS antenna sticking out of the muddy water. “I yelled to the guys in a boat,” he said. “They weren’t really close to Robbie. They were about 30 yards from where they thought he was.” The rescuers smashed a window in the cab to free Gunderson, hauled him aboard a 14-foot, flat-bottom boat, then ferried him to shore. Gunderson was shaking, a sign that hypothermia was setting in. His right thumb was bleeding, cut on the broken window glass. ...Continued page 16 14 INTERNATIONAL OPERATING ENGINEER SUMMER 2018 15

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