Daniel was fortunate to have landed facing the dam wall, with his chest on a step where the water was only 60 centimetres deep. Towards the centre of the dam, his legs were floating in deeper water. Still, he couldn’t move and 60 cm was plenty deep enough to drown in.
Daniel’s arm was wedged under his chest in a push-up position, similar to an upward dog in yoga. If he pushed himself up with all his strength, he could just get his chin out of the water.
He had to calm himself. A surfer of many years, he knew the only way to survive in the water was to slow down and think rationally. He pushed away the panic and began to think.
The excavator was still running, spewing hydraulic oil and diesel into the water. Eventually the oil would flood the engine and the noise would stop. Then who would notice?
No-one else was on the property. Saimaa was 300 kilometres away in Sydney, and Mel, the next-door neighbour, about 500 metres away, would be at the swimming carnival. He cursed himself for cancelling the guy who was supposed to come and mow the grass that day. Maybe he would turn up anyway? Were there any courier deliveries due? he wondered.
Most likely, the first people to miss him would be his son’s teachers when he didn’t show for school pick-up. They wouldn’t come to the property to look for him; they would just send Kalan to after-school care, and the alarm wouldn’t be raised until after 6pm. It was the same with Leilani’s preschool. It was now just past 11.30am. That meant he would have to stay alive for six or more hours, he thought.
Mel might come home around 3pm. Could he hold on till then?
The weight of the roll bar didn’t seem to be evenly distributed along Daniel’s back and he didn’t feel like he was carrying the full weight of the excavator. That might mean he could dig himself out. As he propped his body up with one hand, he used the other to dig underneath his pelvis and legs, pushing the mud to the side.
It was a near-fatal mistake. The machine sank further as he dug, and Daniel realised with horror that the only parts of him that he could manage to raise above the waterline were his eyes and nose. If he used all his strength he could lift himself far enough up to clear his mouth, but that would not be sustainable for more than a few minutes at a time. He had to conserve energy. Daniel knew he could be here for a long, long time.
Daniel’s options were simple. He could either fight or die. If he died, the carers at his daughter’s day care would bring her home. They’d see the excavator overturned in the dam, perhaps his boots would be floating on the surface. He could not let that happen. As excruciating as it was to keep pushing himself high enough to breathe, there was nothing else he could do.
Daniel wasn’t new to endurance. He had done years of open ocean paddling. The trick was to chunk the pain into manageable blocks. To last in this position for six hours was unimaginable. But he could do it for 60 seconds. So he started to count.
He set his hands in one position, counted to 60 and waved one hand back and forth in the water to pass time and keep calm. At 55 he’d allow himself the luxury of knowing there were only five seconds to go. Then he’d shift his weight into a different position and start again. It was like Daniel was giving himself a break every minute.
As the engine finally sputtered and cut out it became very peaceful in the dam. With his ears submerged, all Daniel could hear was the rapid ticking of the machine. The sun shone on his head, his lips were at the waterline and he could see the oil and fluids floating on the surface. When debris came too close to his nose he’d blow a bubble to gently push it away.
The counting worked. For more than an hour, Daniel watched a grasshopper walk up a blade of grass and down the other side. Letting his thoughts wander, he played out different scenarios of how someone might find him. He thought about the sump pump, less than 100 metres away, that could drain the dam and save him. He willed different people to come, even trying telepathy for someone to pop in for a visit. Above all, he thought, Saimaa must not hear he was dead.
Saimaa had often nagged him about taking up yoga. He’d always insisted that after ten minutes he was bored. Now, his arched back was screaming and his arms were throbbing. How long has someone stayed in an upward dog position before? he wondered. It was best not to think about the pain.
As the time dragged on and the excavator continued to slowly sink, Daniel felt a slow rising panic, made worse when he remembered that rain was forecast that day. Just 20 mm would be enough to kill him. He could fight for hours, but there were some things over which he had no control.
But there was no use dwelling on them, he told himself. If he could stay calm and make good decisions, he would have a reasonable chance of staying alive.
At times the emotions would well up and he’d laugh hysterically. Was he really going to die in the mud at the bottom of his own dam? But then he’d calm himself, breathe through his nose and get back to counting.
The engine continued to softly tick.