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Man trapped in sinkhole: ‘My kids probably aren’t going to see me again’

The sinkhole that Bill Berkey fell into while logging in an area near Montesano (Courtesy of Bill Berkey and Jim Stennett)

Bill Berkey was trapped in a sinkhole for more than 24 hours. He owns a logging company, and was working at a job site alone near Montesano when he fell into the hole.

“I wanted to basically identify this dangerous (sinkhole) on our job site with ribbon, so I grabbed some orange ribbon out of my pickup and started to view the area,” he told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson. “I started ribboning off an area and I worked down into this little bit of a ravine and ridge there, and I was going to cross through the ridge. I put up one last ribbon and the next thing I know I fell into a hole. I couldn’t feel the ground or anything below me.”

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“I was hung up on a bunch of debris and old logs that were over the hole. All the debris that held me up for a few seconds finally broke and I fell into the hole. I landed on my neck and back.”

Berkey tried to craft a makeshift ladder from some of the debris. He also tried to climb out using roots protruding from the walls. Then, in a move that likely helped save his life, he threw his hard hat out of the sinkhole so someone would be able to find him if the walls caved in and buried him.

“I eventually just gave up because I had fell so many times trying to get up out of there. It was just too high,” he said. “I eventually figured I’d just start making a mound of dirt under me. I started scratching at the walls with my pocket knife and sticks.”

Berkey slipped into the sinkhole around noon on Monday. He wasn’t found until the next afternoon.

“I was in there probably 24 to 30 hours,” he said. “I didn’t think anybody was going to be able to hear me. A lot of things, when you’re in complete blackness in the dead of night, go through your mind…Yeah, my kids probably aren’t going to see me again.”

Escaping the sinkhole

The man that did eventually save Berkey ’s life was Jim Stennett, a friend who had agreed to help him with a logging job.

“Tuesday, I was supposed to meet him at 6:30 down by the river where he could show me where the job was. I got down there a little bit early and I’m waiting for him, and his wife called me,” Stennett said.

She hadn’t heard from Berkey and was starting to get worried. Stennett searched the area and even checked the RV Park where Berkey was temporarily staying for the duration of the job.

“I drove through the park and didn’t see his truck. Right there, fear. Something’s not right. I’ve been in this business for 40-some years and I’ve had to carry a lot of people out of the woods. When you get a bad feeling you just get a bad feeling.”

Stennett eventually located Berkey ’s truck with the help of directions from his logging partner. Although neither Stennett nor Berkey could hear each other, they could both hear a couple dogs barking nearby.

“I’m thinking, wow, Bill’s out in the woods, fell down and these dogs have found him like in a Disney movie. Or they’re eating him. One of the two,” Stennett said.

That’s when Stennett spotted Berkey’s orange hard hat partially hidden in some ferns.

“Right in front of it is a hole. I look down, and Christ, there’s Bill,” Stennett said.  “I said, ‘You all right?’ And he said, ‘Well, yeah.’”

“I said, ‘Don’t go anywhere. I’m gonna go get some help.’”

Berkey, who said he had been through “pure hell” in the cold overnight, finally saw Stennett’s face.

“Thank God it was Jimmy,” he said. “After all the thoughts I had, you damn near wanna cry or something. I didn’t think I was going to be found. I was ecstatic to hear somebody for once after being in there for that long.”

Listen the full interview here.

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