June 13, 1981, Bausman Firefighter Jeffrey W. Jones died in the line of duty. Firefighter Jones, along with St. Joseph’s Hospital Paramedics Bruce Ditlow and Kevin Weatherlow from Medic 6-13, gave their lives attempting the rescue of a child who fell into an abandoned
septic tank on Hamilton Road in Lancaster Township. The incident gained national attention and brought forth awareness on the dangers of rescues in confined spaces. Many of our current members were not around when this incident occurred, but that doesn’t stop us from remembering the
sacrifice that Jeff made for our community. We shall never forget his actions that day. We will also continue to make sure his passing serves as a tool for us to use to be better firefighters.
Rescuers entered an abandoned septic tank one by one in efforts to rescue 8-year-old Benjamin Walker. The boy was saved, but three who entered the tank, one a teenager, died, suffocated by carbon dioxide gas.
The tragedy started at about 1615 when Dr. Walker, a urologist at St. Joseph’s Hospital, discovered that his eight-year-old boy was trapped in the septic tank which is in the family’s backyard and has been unused for a number of years and called the St. Joseph’s Hospital paramedics.
The boy, who was mowing the lawn, was dumping grass clippings down a 14-inch-diameter pipe that leads to the septic tank when a grass catcher slipped out of his hands and fell into the tank. The family had commonly used the tank to dispose of grass and shrub clippings.
The boy then got a ladder, which he placed into the septic tank and then climbed down in an attempt to find the grass catcher. The boy was overcome by the gas and unable to climb out. He was then discovered by his father. The father could not fit into the tank called St. Joseph’s Hospital, which sent an ambulance to the scene. When the St. Joseph’s rescue unit first arrived, they were unaware that the septic tank was filled with the noxious gas.
Two Medics Enter Tank
Joe Giordano, the chief of the Wheatland Fire Company, said when he arrived Weatherlow was ready to descend into the septic tank after his close friend.
Giordano said he insisted that Weatherlow don SCBA before entering the tank. A lifeline was also attached to the paramedic.
Because of the narrowness of the opening, rescuers entering the hole had to be lowered first, before the SCBA could be handed down to them. After the narrow, four-foot-long passageway, the tank openecd up and was six- to eight-feet deep and large enough for a man to walk.
Weatherlow was able to attach a lifeline to the boy, who was successfully pulled from the tank and rushed to the hospitall, and then transferred to the Hershey Medical Center. He had been in the hole for about 25 minutes.
“It was a routine call, a child trapped in a sewer with no serious injuries,” said Ken Culton, a medic on the emergency squad at St. Joseph’s Hospital. “Then it became very emotional. It moved from chaos to mayhem to hysteria. At the end a lot of us were crying.”
Mr. Culton said that a fellow medic, Bruce Ditlow, 24-years old, was the first to enter the tank. “He said, ‘It’s a little stuffy in here,’ ” Mr. Culton said. “And that’s the last thing he ever said.”
A second medic, Kevin Weatherlow, 22, was above ground. “Weatherlow and Ditlow went to high school together,” Culton said. “Bruce had served as Kevin’s best man at his wedding. Kevin freaked out when he realized Bruce was down there unconscious.”
Weatherlow entered the tank with an air pack, tied a rope around the boy, and then apparently took off the mask to give it to his friend, said Culton. He was overcome almost instantly; rescuers found the mask a few feet from his face.
Two volunteer firefighters then crawled down the pipe to rescue the medics. Jeff Jones, 18, of the Bausman Fire Company, collapsed and later died. His comrade, Mark Rhinier, escaped.
Firefighters began pumping air into the tank, and the police and volunteers used sledgehammers to smash through the tank’s foot-thick wall.
Jones, Weatherlow and Ditlow were brought out, but they had been in the tank for as long as 45 minutes, and efforts to revive them failed. Rescue workers said they apparently fell into areas where the carbon dioxide was more concentrated than where the child fell.
Walker was transferred to the intensive care unit of Hershey Medical Center in critical condition. After workers finally crashed through the concrete and stone wall of the septic tank and removed Ditlow and Jones from the hole shortly after 1800, medical personnel made efforts to revive them. They were unsuccessful and both were pronounced dead at the hospital.
Bausman Firefighter Jeffrey W. Jones’ name appears on the 1981 memorial plaque at the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Flowers are placed at his resting place in St. Joseph’s Catholic Cemetery in Bausman next to the LTFD fire station by Chief Comfort each year.
– Fire News photos by Greg Leaman