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Trapped, scared, rescued

A Bangladeshi labourer was buried chest deep in a trench for five hours as rescuers worked to free him from the rubble.

ABU DHABI // No one knew his name. Not even his foreman or his co-workers. Not any of the 73 rescue workers, police or paramedics who were trying to pull him from the hole where he was buried chest-deep in rocks and rubble. It was his second day on the job, digging to lay pipes five metres below the ground in a dark alley of Khalidiyah just after sunset. He was one of three people who had been digging deeper and deeper since 9am in the summer heat on Monday. The men dug around pipes, manholes and large rocks. When they reached the five-metre mark, it was time to go home. At exactly 7pm, the foreman, Sheer Wahab, stood above the three men who were digging below and signalled for them to come out. Then something happened. "It felt like an earthquake," he said, remembering the shifting ground beneath his feet. He quickly jumped out of the way, screaming for the men to get out. Two of the men looked up and saw the ground caving in on them. They leapt out of the way and escaped, but the new worker could not get out in time. Rubble and rocks compressed by the large slabs of concrete above caved in and trapped the man against the edge of the trench. His colleagues kept their distance, afraid that the ground would cave in further. "We heard him screaming for help," Mr Wahab said. The police were called at 7.15pm by a man who was driving by and saw the group panicking. Within seven minutes, the Quick Intervention Response team of the Civil Defence arrived. One fire truck arrived, then another - four in total - along with a half-dozen police cars and two ambulances. "His name is not important right now, we just want to make sure he comes out alive and then we can ask him his name," First Lt Tariq al Ubaidli of the Civil Defence said as he put the police tape around the area. The once dark and quiet alley was now lit with a dozen floodlights that illuminated the trench from every angle. The red, blue and yellow emergency lights beckoned dozens of neighbours and bystanders to watch from behind the tape. The digger, who could hardly speak a word of English, could not see any of the efforts being set up to secure his release. With only his shoulders and head peering above the rubble five metres below the ground, he could hear only the sounds of fire trucks and ambulances as they rolled in. "This is a real challenge because we don't want more of the ground to cave in," Lt al Ubaidli told members of the team as they gathered around him. "Extend a ladder from one side to the other," he told the men as they stretched a metal ladder to sit over the trench. The temperature cooled, though not significantly. At 37C it was still hot enough to make the digger prone to dehydration. Before the rescue effort began, Dr Najeb Attalah walked into the trench from the side and measured the man's heartbeat from his neck. The doctor cleaned sand from the man's face, gave him some water to drink and told him: "We will bring you out; just stay strong. More water?" The digger shook his head as the doctor poured water on him to cool him down. "He is conscious, but he is panicking. He needs to stay hydrated," Dr Attalah told the rescue team as he retrieved an intravenous solution from the ambulance. Carefully putting the needle in the digger's neck, Dr Attalah ordered the IV bag to be hung from the ladder above. The biggest risk was the large rock that seemed to be barely stable just inches from the man's face. Several of the Emirati rescuers secured the rock from the bottom using two heavy-duty ropes, which were extended to more than a dozen firemen. The rescuers lowered a hydraulic jack and a large piece of plywood into the trench, inches above the man's head. A team of Emirati, Turkish, Arabic, German and one Canadian started to dig at the man's side. "Pull. Pull," the men screamed from below as the hydraulic jack squeaked from the pressure of the rock. Firemen tugged at the rope to hold the rock in place. The rubble and rocks being dug out were placed in metal buckets and handed down a line of rescue workers to be dumped outside the trench. In energy-sapping humidity, the risk to the rescuers themselves was also great. Several paramedics suffered from dehydration, and water bottles were brought to the exhausted workers. One of the rescuers collapsed from fatigue as the evening wore on. After re-emerging to the surface, he said: "He was up to his chest when we started, but now he is down to his knees." At 11.46pm, nearly five hours after the man was trapped, the rescuers yelled what everyone was waiting for. "Get the stretcher," the voices cried from below ground, and paramedics then lowered the stretcher with a neck brace. As the rescuers pulled the digger out, he screamed and fell unconscious. More than a dozen rescuers carefully placed him on the stretcher and carried him out of the trench to thundering applause. Within 30 seconds, the nameless digger was inside an ambulance on his way to hospital. The heroes mingled, patting each other on the back. The floodlights went off and emergency lights faded. Still, no one knew who the digger was. Only yesterday did everyone find out Uzul Shaikh's name. The 28-year-old Bangladeshi labourer, who suffered a broken shoulder, was expected to remain at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City for a week. myoussef@thenational.ae

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