One week after surviving being buried beneath tons of coal, Dustin Chidester considers the fact that he is sitting in his home with his wife by his side and their infant daughter sleeping in the next room to be something of a miracle.
But in the early morning of Feb. 12, for almost six hours miracles seemed very much out of reach. Dustin, who is a heavy equipment operator for the Savage Coal Terminal on Ridge Road near Wellington, was pushing coal into a feeder on top of a coal pile in a D9 Cat bulldozer. He said there was a pile of coal on the other side of the feeder and he went to push it away. That was around 3:30 a.m., a half an hour before the end of his shift.
"Fifteen more minutes and he would have been in the shower and headed for home," said his wife, Clerece, 23. But on that morning he never made it to the shower as planned.
Riding atop the coal pile in the bulldozer, the feeder was pulling from the bottom of the pile and on the morning of Feb. 12 the coal had bridged rather than sank. As Dustin backed his bulldozer up it ran across that bridge of coal and fell into a hole beneath back first and the coal slid from the sides, burying the bulldozer and its operator. As the coal collapsed around the machine the angle of the bulldozer's blade kept the coal from crushing in around the cab, creating an air pocket for Dustin.
Swallowed by the coal and with only the cab's dome light and the stereo to provide illumination, Dustin said he didn't panic. "I thought I was OK because the guys would dig me out. If I had known I was 40-feet down I would have panicked," he said.
The impact of the bulldozer's fall had broken the back window and the door window to the cab and spider webbed the front windshield. "It sounded like thunder when the windows broke," Dustin said.
Although the fall had been tremendous, Dustin said he felt OK. He knew his head was bleeding and he tightened his hard hat around his head to stem the flow of blood.
The CB radio's antenna had been destroyed in the fall, so while he could not communicate with rescuers, he said he knew they were out there and knew they would find a way to get to him. "I never thought I wouldn't get out. I had faith in those guys that they would find a way to get me out," he said.
Above him rescuers were scrambling to do just that. Savage employees attempted to dig their way to Chidester with loaders and shortly after the accident the Carbon County Sheriff's Office put in a call to Wayne Nielson of Nielson Construction and asked for the use of a crane. The construction company operates a facility a short distance from the Savage terminal and the crane was quickly on its way. A short time later trackhoes from the Nielson yard were brought in as well to help with the digging efforts.
While the rescue efforts continued above him and with no way to communicate with the surface, Dustin said he was able to sleep for a while.
At their home in Cleveland, Clerece Chidester, unaware of what was happening, was thinking of sleep as well. An admitted night owl, Clerece said at around 3:45 a.m. she decided she had better go to bed. "Dustin gets mad if I'm still up when he gets home," she said.
When the doorbell rang at around 5:30 a.m. the first thing to go through Clerece's mind was "Oh my gosh, I've locked the door on him again." But when she opened the door it wasn't her husband, but Carbon County Sheriff James Cordova.
"The sheriff told me there had been an accident and they were still trying to rescue him. They said they knew he was in his machine but couldn't reach him," Clerece said. "He asked me if there was anyone I could call."
Clerece's parents, Kay and Linda Jensen, live a short distance from the Chidester home and Clerece said they were there within three minutes. The sheriff called for an update on the rescue attempt before leaving and told the worried family that he would contact them if there was good news to report.
When the sheriff left, Clerece said they all began to pray and to worry...and to hope. "I was pretty worried. You try not to think of the worst, but there are realities that you have to think about," Clerece said.
At around 7 a.m. another call came to the Chidester home, informing them that they still hadn't reached Dustin. Sometime after that the vice president of Savage Industries and Clerece and Dustin's bishop arrived at their home to wait for word on the rescue.
While they waited for word on the condition of her husband, Clerece said she always held on to hope. "Everybody told me to hold onto hope, but not to have false hope. We just kept hoping. I didn't think he would be taken from us right now. It wasn't his time to go, but it was hard to know for sure."
Back inside his bulldozer, Dustin had decided it was time to dig. Breaking off the windshield wiper from the cab of the bulldozer, he said he used the arm to dig at the coal, first throwing it behind him into the cab itself, and later, when the feeder was turned on in an attempt to remove some of the coal which had him trapped, he began to push the coal toward the feeder, which he said he could barely see with the dome light from the cab of the bulldozer.
Dustin said he dug for more than an hour and he finally made his way to the top of the bulldozer's radiator. Laying on his belly he said he could see daylight to his right.
At their home Clerece said she received a call between 8 and 9 a.m. saying that they could see Dustin and that they could see him moving.
"After that, after knowing he was alive was when the emotions became so strong. I thought as long as he is alive I can deal with anything else," she said.
Although the rescuers could see Dustin, the 27-year-old heavy equipment operator wasn't sure they could see him, so he was going to make sure.
"I crawled over on my belly and stood on the ram (of the bulldozer) and started throwing coal up out of the hole and started yelling and whistling," he said.
Through the hole, which Dustin guessed was between five and eight feet wide, he could see a rescue worker dangling from the line of the crane. With a danger of the coal collapsing even more around the bulldozer, the rescuer was able to drop a line through the hole to Dustin. He looped the line around himself and was pulled slowly free from the trap which had held him for almost six hours.
"It was an eerie feeling, knowing I was that deep," Dustin said. Free at last, a cheer went up from the rescue units from Wellington and Price, members of the Carbon County Sheriff's Office and Savage and Nielson employees who had worked tirelessly to free him.
At their home, Clerece received the call she had been waiting for. "They called and said he had walked to the ambulance," she said.
The couple saw each other for the first time after the ordeal at the hospital.
"I saw him sitting there with all of his gear on and his hard hat still on, covered with coal. I went running to hug him and he said 'I'm filthy'," Clerece said, smiling at the memory. "And I said 'I don't care'."
A week after the incident and the Chidester's have had time to think of the effort that went into Dustin's rescue. "I can't thank enough all of the Savage employees and the guys from Nielson's and the Wellington and Price rescue teams and the Carbon County Sheriff," Dustin said.
In that week they have also had time to think about the meaning of miracles.
While everyone held out hope throughout the ordeal, from those trying to rescue him, to his family, to Dustin himself, the fact that he escaped virtually unscathed was miraculous most feel.
"The way the Cat was buried most of us thought that the glass had ruptured and he had smothered. I thought if the glass had held he had a chance," said Brett Christensen, the crane operator for the rescue.
"With all he has gone through, he's got some sort of mission to accomplish in this life," Clerece said.
Two days later, on Valentine's Day, the couple had time to sit and think and feel blessed. "After something like that it is hard to let him walk out the door without you. It makes you realize how quickly things can happen," Clerece said.
The family will celebrate Dustin's birthday on Friday and they plan to do so quietly...at home. "It's probably safer that way," Dustin said.