When Jon Humber heard a strange splashing sound echo near his house Tuesday afternoon, he didn’t realize investigating would lead to a terrifying fall down a cold 16-foot-deep well, evoking scenes from a horror movie.
Now rescued from the well that was right next to his house’s foundation — which Eugene Springfield Fire initially reported as a sinkhole — Humber said he’s glad to be alive but was worried at the time whether he would get out.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get out of there,” Humber, a retired 67-year-old, said in a phone interview Wednesday morning. “I was fearing for my life because I was worried that the thing was going to cave in on me. I also had thoughts that part of the house foundation could come in on me.”
Humber went outside to check on the echoing noise a little before 1:40 p.m. Tuesday, following the splashing sound until he found it emanating from the ground beneath a patch of rose bushes on the west side of his house on Royal Avenue, close to Fern Ridge Reservoir west of Eugene.
“It sounded like maybe it was an animal or something, but there wasn’t any standing water anywhere,” Humber said.
He thought it might have been a broken pipe, so he stepped toward the bushes, and the ground collapsed beneath him.
“I remember reaching out with my right foot and stepping, and the ground was very soft, and then all a sudden there was no ground underneath me,” Humber recalled. “I fell down, followed by some rose bushes on top of me.”
The fall was rocky, Humber said, as he bounced off the sides of the well before crashing into several feet of water and mud. Humber said he also broke through a layer of wood he assumes was placed over the hole at some point in an attempt to cover the well up.
“There were broken pieces of wood floating around me in the well and what appeared to be rat feces,” he said.
After getting up, Humber found himself standing in waist-deep groundwater, which he later told firefighters he was glad wasn’t septic water.
Although the fire department called it a sinkhole, Humber said he’s positive it was a well because the hole was lined with bricks from eye level down, with dirt above it and the layer of broken wood.
While standing in the cold water, Humber said dirt and other debris was falling on him and into the water, making the splashing sounds he heard. It was somewhat dark, but Humber said his eyes adjusted, noting he could see the small blue skylight above him.
His experience reminded him of horror movie scenes where people are stuck in wells.
“It looks exactly like those old cartoon wells, and I kind of had visions of that scene in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ where they had that woman down in the well,” Humber said.
Luckily, Humber’s wife was outside with him. She saw him disappear underground, he said, as he heard her scream in reaction. She called 911, and firefighters from Eugene Springfield Fire arrived at around 1:50 p.m. to the house.
Several fire trucks and a team of firefighters arrived and lowered a hardhat to Humber to protect himself. The emergency responders were able to use a 16-foot ladder — less than a foot stuck out the top — to reach Humber. He was able to climb out the 5-foot wide hole to safety about 30 to 45 minutes after he fell in.
Eugene Springfield Fire Battalion Chief Ben Meigs, who responded to the incident, said this is the first well rescue he has seen in the area in 25 years.
Humber was still sore Wednesday, he said, and was using crutches and a cane to move around. He didn’t break any bones, but he said he may have injured ligaments in his knee.
The retired couple, who have lived there for 12 years, had no idea there was a well along the side of the house. Humber said the original house was built in 1964, but he guessed the well might have been covered with wood for decades before.
His theory is that the layer of timbers, located 6 to 8 feet underground, had dirt piled on top, but had eroded away until the layer of dirt in Humber’s garden was thin enough to fall into.
“I don’t think anybody knew about it, and honestly I’d be surprised if any living person knew that it was there,” he said.
Humber’s next step is to fill the hole with rounded rocks, which he said would be completed Wednesday afternoon in order to prevent any future falls and reduce the danger the hole poses to the house foundation.
“One thing I’m taking away from this is that when you’re faced with a situation that is life-threatening, you do have some strength to draw on, and I was able to get up that ladder even though I was injured and claw my way out of that hole,” he said.
Louis Krauss covers breaking news for The Register-Guard. Contact him at email@example.com or 541-521-2498, and follow him on Twitter @LouisKraussNews.