Glenwood's Ryan Sell was among four Omaha firefighters recognized last week with a Medal of Courage for their efforts in saving the life of a man trapped in a collapsed trench earlier this fall.
Sell and fellow members of the Omaha Fire Depart-ment's Special Operations Team rescued 41-year-old Jeff Schnider during a delicate 3 1/2-hour operation on Sept. 16. Schnider, a plumber, was laying pipe in a new subdivision in west Omaha when the trench gave way.
Schnider was buried up to his waist with his foot trapped under a metal pipe. He remained conscious and was provided an oxygen mask and small shovel by firefighters who couldn’t begin the rescue operation until the trench and surrounding area were stabilized.
“We had to shut everything down in the area and get the trench shored up,” Sell said. “Any kind of vibration could cause the trench to collapse again.”
The rescue workers manually shoveled dirt out of the trench, being careful not to cause a second collapse. Instead of cutting through the metal pipe, which could create enough vibration to create another collapse, they dug underneath his foot to extricate him.
Once the passageway was clear, Sell was equipped with a harness and ropes and lowered into the trench head-first.
“I went down head-first,” Sell said. “He wasn’t really hurt, just trapped. I was able to pull him loose from the dirt. I told him to hang on. I basically bear-hugged him around the waste. He hung tight, but obviously I wasn’t going to let him go.”
Sell said Schnider remained calm throughout the ordeal, which helped make the rescue mission a success.
“In a situation like that, 90 percent of it is mental,” Sell said. “Most people aren’t used to that type of environment and they often panic. When we go into a rescue situation, we don’t know how people will react.”
By the time Schnider was brought to the surface, dozens of onlookers and members of the news media had gathered at the scene. Several members of Schnider's family were also present. Sell remembers hearing the cheers and feeling a collective sense of relief as he and Schnider emerged from the trench.
“There was a lot of tension. The guy’s wife and kids were standing 150 yards away,” Sell said. “It all came out good, but these things don’t always end that way.”
Schnider was transported to an Omaha hospital by medical helicopter and released after treatment for minor injuries.
Nearly 30 firefighters and first responders took part in the rescue operation. Sell, Brian Demery, Kevin Meschede and Capt. Peter Phillips were awarded the Medal of Courage. Others were presented awards for bravery that day. Schnider and his family have thanked the firefighters and rescue personnel in person for their efforts.
Sell said he’s appreciative of the Medal of Courage he’s been presented, but the greatest satisfaction from the rescue comes from knowing that Schnider is alive and reunited with his family.
“Nothing makes you feel better than sending a guy back to his kids,” he said.