DELHI TWP. – Life is too short to sweat the small stuff.
So says Paul Paff, the 80-year-old Delhi Township man trapped about six hours Tuesday in a 15-foot-deep septic tank behind his home on Pontius Road.
“It’s a miracle, I tell ya that. Nothing ever bothered me, even falling into a cistern,” he joked this morning from his room at University Hospital, where he's recovering from the ordeal. “I’ll worry about it now. But I never worried about it before.”
While mowing the lawn Tuesday, Paff said he noticed a small opening in the grass in his backyard by the private septic tank that’s been there for 60 years.
He went closer to investigate about 2 p.m. – and discovered the hard way that four inches of concrete on top of the septic tank had apparently deteriorated. He fell in feet first.
“I had seen this square hole. I knew it was above the septic tank and looked up and was trying to look into it and I fell into it,” he recalled. “The cement was crumbling in the bottom. It disintigrated. It was shot. I went down in the dirt.”
At the bottom of the tank, he plunged into muddy water.
“I held my breath and felt the air hit my face,” he said.
His shoes and feet were stuck in the mud. Dirt fell down around him up to his knees. He compared being in the tank to standing in a closet that was about 9 feet tall and three feet wide.
“My body was in water three feet deep,” he said.
He managed to step out of his shoes and pull them up so he could set them on the grass outside the tank. His hope was that someone would see them and help him. “I could stand up but I couldn’t get out,” he said. “I sat on top of the dirt.”
Then, he waited to be rescued. It was a long wait.
Paff was home alone. His wife, Ruth, 78, had fallen ill the night before and remains at Mercy Hospital Western Hills. He thinks several hours went by. No one came by or noticed he was missing.
He kept yelling “Help!” every 10 minutes or so, he said.
No one answered.
He started to panic. The water was freezing cold. He was shivering.
“I’m OK,” he said today. “I feel fine. But the only thing was when it turned dark, about 6 or 6:30 p.m., I got cold. I was freezing. I think if I would have been there another two hours I don’t think I would have made it.”
He heard a dog barking in the distance. He barked back.
“I heard him barking and started barking and growling and stuff to try to attract him,” Paff said. “I think it made him mad to hear me growling at him. I wanted somebody to see me.”
Stacey Walsh, who was spending time at her mother’s house two doors down from Paff, heard the dog barking and eventually found Paff.
She saw his shoes and came over.
“She said ‘Oh, my, God, Mr. Paff!’ I said, ‘Call 911.’”
Delhi Township Fire Chief Bill Zoz said the first responders moved water and waste out of the hole. It soon became apparent they needed heavier equipment.
Emergency crews from several jurisdictions sent manpower and gear, including a heater to pump warm air into the tank, septic trucks to pump out the water and sewage, lights other materials.
Paff was finally extricated using a rope and pulley system by the Hamilton County Urban Search and Rescue unit, he was decontaminated on the scene – the warm water was brought over by a neighbor – and transported to University Hospital by a medical helicopter.