Cat driver reflects on incident
One week after surviving being buried beneath tons of coal, Dustin Chidester considers the fact that he is alive to be something of a miracle.
Dustin, a heavy equipment operator at the Savage terminal on Ridge Road near Wellington, was pushing coal into a feeder on top of a pile in a D9 Cat bulldozer on Feb. 12. He said there was a pile of coal on the other side of the feeder and he went to push it away at 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 while Dustin was operating the bulldozer, the feeder was pulling from the bottom of the pile and the coal had bridged rather than sank. As he backed the bulldozer up, it ran across the bridge and fell into a hole. The coal slid from the sides, burying the bulldozer and its operator. 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, the man had only the cab's dome light and the stereo to provide illumination.
"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 fall had broken the bulldozer's 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. He knew his head was bleeding and tightened his hard hat to stem the flow of blood.
The CB radio's antenna had been destroyed in the fall. While he could not communicate with rescuers, he said he knew they were there and 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.
Savage employees attempted to dig their way to Chidester with loaders. Shortly after the accident, the Carbon County Sheriff's Office called 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 and with no way to communicate with the surface, Dustin said he was able to sleep for a while.
At the couple's home in Cleveland, Clerece was unaware of what was happening. An admitted night owl, she decided to go to bed at around 3:45 a.m.
"Dustin gets mad if I'm still up when he gets home," pointed out the cat operator's wife.
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 the woman opened the door, she came face to face with 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," she said. "He asked me if there was anyone I could call."
Clerece contacted her parents, Kay and Linda Jensen, who live a short distance from the Chidester home.
The sheriff called for an update on the rescue attempt before leaving the couple's residence and told the family that he would contact them if there was good news to report.
"I was pretty worried. You try not to think of the worst, but there are realities that you have to think about," said Clerece.
At around 7 a.m., a call informed the family that rescuers still hadn't reached Dustin.
At the scene, Dustin had decided it was time to dig. Breaking off the windshield wiper, he used the arm to dig at the coal, throwing it behind him into the cab. Later, he pushed coal toward the feeder.
Dustin said he dug for more than an hour and finally made his way to the top of the bulldozer's radiator. Lying on his stomach, he could see the daylight.
Clerece received a call between 8 and 9 a.m. indicatingrescuers could see Dustin moving. But the 27-year-old heavy equipment operator wasn't sure rescuers had spotted him.
"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, he could see a rescue worker dangling from the line of the crane. With the danger of the coal collapsing even more, the rescuer was able to drop a line to Dustin. He looped the line around himself and was pulled slowly free from the trap which had held him captive 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 home, Clerece received the call she had been waiting for.
A week after the incident and the Chidesters 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.
They have also had time to think about the incident.
"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.
The couple plan to celebrate Dustin's birthday on Friday quietly, at home.
"It's probably safer that way," commented Dustin.