God, Send Someone!

Was it a coincidence or a true miracle that led to my brother’s rescue?

- Posted on Jun 13, 2011

Dick Sullivan shares an inspirational story

This article was originally published in Guideposts magazine in November 1955.

At 4 p.m. last June 14, my brother Jack Sullivan was just crawling down into a ten-foot-deep trench, which ran down the center of Washington Street, a main thoroughfare in West Roxbury, Massachusetts.

It was near quitting time. Jack is a welder, and he wanted to finish one particular part of his job before he left. Jack said goodbye to the other men as they quit, took his welding lead in his right hand, lowered himself and his electric power cable into the trench. His head was well below the street surface.

Traffic up above was heavy. Jack could not see the cars and trucks, but he could feel their vibration as the earth shook slightly. Occasionally a pebble would break loose from the side of the trench and fall. Jack paid no attention to it.

It was Jack's job to weld the joints of a new water main both inside and out. First Jack crawled into the 36-inch diameter pipe, lowered his mask to protect his eyes against the bright welding arc, then went to work. After completing the inside of the joint he crawled out of the pipe. It was 4:30 P.M. He began to weld the outside. Halfway through he stood up to get the kinks out of his legs. Jack stretched, turned toward the pipe, pulled down the shield again. And then it happened.

The bank caved in. Tons of dirt came crushing down on him from above and behind.

Jack was rammed against the pipe with the force of a sledge hammer. He went down, buried in a kneeling position; his shield slammed against the pipe; his nose flattened out against the inside of the shield.

The pain started. He felt his shoulder burning against the red hot section of pipe he had been welding. He tried to move the shoulder back from the pipe. He couldn't.

His nose began to pain him. It was bleeding. He couldn't move his head.

Jack tried calling. Three times he shouted. The sound of his voice died in his shield. He tried to breathe slowly to preserve the supply of oxygen.

It crossed Jack's mind that he might die.

Slowly he began to pray. Going to Mass at St. Patrick's once a week suddenly seemed quite inadequate. My brother continued to pray. He had his eyes open. It was black.

Something cool crossed his right hand. He wiggled his fingers. They moved freely. His right hand had not been buried. He moved the hand again. He tried to scratch around with his hand to open up an air passage down his arm. But the weight of the earth was too great. It didn't do any good.

Then it occurred to him that he'd been holding the welding lead in that hand. So he fished around with his fingers. He found the rod, still in the holder. He grasped it tightly and moved it, hoping it would strike the pipe. Suddenly his wrist jerked and he knew he had struck an arc—the electric current would be making its bright orange flash. So he kept on tapping the pipe, making an arc, hoping it would draw attention.

"That must look like something," Jack thought to himself. "A hand reaching out of the ground striking an arc against the pipe. That must really look like something."

He began to figure how long he'd been buried. Of course there was no way of telling time. He wondered how much gasoline was left in the engine-driven welder tip on top of the trench — whether it would last until dark when the orange arc might draw attention. Then he remembered that it was almost the longest day in the year; darkness wouldn't fall until nearly 9 o'clock. Still, if he had enough oxygen in his little tomb and if the gasoline held out, maybe...

He thought of all the hundreds of people passing within feet of him up above...

He thought of his family and wondered if he'd ever see his little grandson again...

He thought of Tommy Whittaker, his assistant, out on another job on Route 128...

He figured there wasn't anything to do but lie there and wait and keep tapping flashes, and hope enough air filtered into the mask to keep him alive...there wasn't anything to do but lie there and pray...God, send someone...someone...

In another part of Boston, out on Route 128, Jack's assistant, Tommy Whittaker, quit his work for the day. Whittaker was 47 years old. Jack was 41. They had known each other for more than 15 years and were close friends. So close that within the next few moments one of the strangest prayer phenomena in modern times took place.

Tommy Whittaker did not know that Jack was on the Washington Street job. Whittaker got in his truck and started off down Route 128 with the full intention of driving directly home. Route 128 is a main artery, a highway that could take him home within minutes.

But as Whittaker drove, he began to have the feeling that something wasn't right.

He tried to shake the feeling off. He kept driving. The strange and inexplicable sensation grew. He thought that he ought to drive up to the Washington Street job and check it. He dismissed the idea. It meant driving six miles out of his way at the peak of rush hour. Whittaker approached the intersection of Washington and Route 128.

Suddenly he turned.

He did not try to explain it to himself. He just turned.

Meanwhile, Jack continued to pray. It was the same simple prayer: God, send someone. The bleeding in his nose hadn't stopped, and the blood ran down his throat and began to clot. God, send someone. He spat the blood out, but it was getting more difficult. All the while he listened to the muffled sound of his welding motor outside. He wondered if it was dark yet. It seemed an eternity. Things were getting hazy.

Tommy Whittaker drove along Washington Street. The job was divided into two sections. He stopped his truck at a spot several blocks away from the cave-in, got out. He chatted with an engineer for the Metropolitan District Commission for 15 minutes. Whittaker did not mention the gnawing sensation that still would not leave him alone. The time was 5:45 P.M. It was still broad daylight.

Back in the trench, Jack struck some more arcs. He thought it might be dark by now. He listened to the welder popping. He hoped someone would come, soon. The clot of blood in his throat was getting harder to bring up. He was a little surprised that he wasn't in panic. My brother just continued to pray, God, send...

Up above, a little way down Washington Street, Tommy Whittaker got into his truck, said goodbye to his friend, and started up again. The gnawing sensation, if anything, grew stronger. He reached a stop light. It was his turn-off to get back to 128 by a shortcut. If he stayed on Washington Street, he'd have to go still farther out of his way. Tommy Whittaker stopped his truck for a brief instant, then continued on Washington.

Underground, Jack finally gave up striking the arc. It was making him breathe too hard. He didn't think he could last much longer. He couldn't get the blood clot out of his throat. He was gagging.

At that moment up above on Washington Street, Tommy Whittaker arrived at the spot where his friend was dying. Nothing seemed unusual. He noticed the stake-body truck. But it was a truck that Sullivan never used. Whittaker thought another man from the shop was down in the trench. Whittaker pulled up. He got out of his truck, noticed the welder was running. He thought someone was inside the pipe, welding the inner circle. Nothing, still, struck him as unusual.

Then Tommy Whittaker saw the hand...the hand moved.

"Oh, God!" he whispered.

Whittaker jumped down into the trench and dug like a chipmunk with his hands. The earth was too packed. He scrambled out of the trench, looked back at the hand, shuddered. He shut off the welder and raced through traffic across the street to a garage.

Underground, Jack heard the pop-pop of the welder stop. It was then that he began to prepare to die. He knew it was all over. He was gagging and trying to throw off the mist that came over him.

Tommy Whittaker, feet away, shouted to the men in the garage. "There's a man buried alive over there! Get a shovel."

Back across the street Whittaker raced, carrying a snow shovel. He ran to the place where the hand stuck up, still not knowing it was his friend; he jumped down…

My brother, below, felt an extra pressure on top of his head. He knew someone was above him. He fought to keep from fainting.

The garage men hurried over.

"Send for the police. There's a fire box down the street. Pull the box," Whittaker called.

Tommy Whittaker began to dig. He uncovered a wristwatch. He thought he recognized the watch band. He kept digging, until he uncovered the man's side. He saw the man was still breathing; the respiration was very weak.

Then Tommy Whittaker recognized my brother. Jack had fainted. Whittaker dug more frantically.

The rescue squad arrived. They applied an oxygen mask to Jack while they were still digging him out. From busy Washington Street, a crowd gathered now.

Jack revived slightly when they put him on a stretcher. It was 6:30 P.M. He spied Tommy Whittaker. "Who found me?" he asked.

"I did," said Whittaker.

With his lips, Jack formed one word.


There was no more powerful word than that.

The gnawing sensation that had been bothering Thomas Whittaker went away.

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