Last summer, my wife Angela and I helped our friend Diane move to a rented house in Connecticut. The house was built in about 1823 – a wooden structure over a stone foundation that had been added on to a number of times during its history.
Diane has two children, then aged 10 and 12, and when we arrived she was preparing to put a bed frame together. I offered to take over as she needed to pick up her children. Before leaving, she pointed out a white square on the wooden floor and said: “Would you cover that patch with the bed, please? I’m not sure what’s going on, but I think the boards are a little weak there.” We were on the ground floor, so there was no sense of danger. Diane’s only worry was that her son might jump out of bed and damage them.
The first three sections of the bed went together easily, but when I stood up to look for the fourth I heard a crack – I had stepped in the middle of the mysterious square. The floor sagged and then gave way. Rather than throw my hands out to grab for support, I pressed them against my sides. I don’t know what made me do that – some strange instinct, or sheer luck. A second later I was underwater; it felt as if I had stepped into a swimming pool.
I resurfaced and started scrabbling for a handhold, but felt only wet, slippery rock. I was in a circular shaft, made of large, rough stones. At least 15ft above me light spilled through the hole in the floor. I realised I was at the bottom of a well. Angie was frantically calling my name. “I’m OK!” I yelled.
“Should I call 911?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied, breathlessly. “I think that would be a good idea.”
My dad is long gone, but he once told me something I will never forget: “Try never to panic, it is hard to get things right when you are panicked.” So while Angie spoke to the emergency services, I kept my head, took stock of my surroundings and tried to work out how to stay alive until help arrived.
Despite the fall, I hadn’t felt my feet touch bottom and was forced to tread water. The well was 5ft wide where I was, narrowing towards the top. The stones were tightly packed, and though I would have tried to climb out had I still been a teenager, at 67 I didn’t fancy my chances. After a while, I managed to brace my feet against two small outcrops of rock and had time to get my breath back, before slipping off again. This happened several times over the next half hour or so. Above, Angie kept the emergency services dispatcher updated.
I became increasingly uncomfortable. The water wasn’t freezing but nor was it a temperature I’d want to swim in. I briefly considered that I could die in the well and wondered if I would see my late daughter again.
With great relief, I heard approaching sirens. At last, faces appeared at the top of the shaft. A lifejacket was lowered down, followed by a rope so I had something to hang on to. Sawdust drifted on to my face as my rescuers widened the hole and erected a pulley system. Finally, a firefighter descended with a harness and we were hauled out together. Looking down, I realised how lucky I had been not to hit the sides in the fall. Had I been knocked unconscious or broken a limb, I wouldn’t have stood a chance, but I had struck the water so cleanly that my glasses stayed on.
I had spent less than an hour in the well, but was becoming hypothermic. I was loaded into an ambulance and my wet shorts and T-shirt were swapped for a blanket and heat pads. My stay in hospital was short – I had minor scrapes and bruises. I slept well that night; Angie was more troubled than I was. She still has nightmares about it – witnessing that was a shock.
I’m just glad it was me, not Diane or one of her kids. They were able to move in, as planned, a few days later. It seems the well may have been dug when the house was built, but must have been covered up later by a previous owner. It hadn’t been capped off and moisture had gradually rotted the floorboards from below. Diane’s landlord had everything fixed properly, and I’ve seen the room since – the bed has been moved and it’s used for storage now. I felt no great urge to test the floor.