It was Hector Robles’ first day on the job, and it could have been his last if not for the heroic efforts of his fellow construction workers.
Within moments of being buried alive in the backyard of a Seacliff home, six co-workers jumped onto the unstable ground that had, moments earlier, swallowed Robles and began to claw at the dirt and sand with their bare hands.
Robles, who was identified by co-workers, was one of about 10 laborers on the job site for the $500,000 remodel of a three-story, $2.5 million single-family home at 38 W. Clay St. when a drill bit fell off a piece of heavy machinery that was creating a trench in the backyard of the home nestled near the Presidio with views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Robles jumped into a 5-foot-deep trench that had already been dug to reattach the drill, according to witness Ayrton Sobral, a painter working at the house next door, which also is being remodeled.
While in the trench around 1 p.m., the sand Robles stood on collapsed, sending him deeper underground with soil quickly piling on top of him.
A laborer on site, who would only identify himself as Arnold, said there was no indication or noise as the sand beneath Robles collapsed.
Sobral said Arnold and others screamed for help, then jumped onto the sand and began digging to find Robles.
“I was nervous,” Sobral said. “He was totally buried alive.”
Within seconds, Sobral said, the workers were able to locate Robles’ hand. They continued to dig feverishly until his head was located. The sand was cleared until he could breathe. Moments later, the San Francisco Fire Department arrived and took control of the rescue mission, which remained dangerous, fire officials said, due to the volatility of the sand.
For more than four hours, two dozen firefighters and eight paramedics gingerly secured the unstable area while attending to a conscious and responsive Robles, including affixing an IV of fluids to keep him hydrated.
Crews were forced to shore up the banks of the trench and the surrounding sand with 6-foot planks of plywood because with each attempt to dig Robles out, more sand and dirt would give way, sinking him farther, firefighter Rick Gering said.
And it was Robles’ dedicated co-workers who assisted in the construction of those trench walls, cutting and tending to the plywood planks as needed.
Once the sand was shored up, crews attached a rope to Robles’ upper body to secure him. When another rope was tied around his lower body, Robles was lifted out of the ground via a pulley system with the help of six firefighters. He was finally out of the ground at 4:45 p.m.
“He’s very lucky to be alive,” Gering said.
Robles was alert and talking as he was whisked from the Seacliff home, fire Lt. Mindy Talmadge said, and taken to San Francisco General Hospital.
The permit for the $500,000 remodel was issued to Brian MacNamara Construction, according to the Department of Building and Inspection, and did not have any complaints registered against it. The permit includes work for a garage addition, a deck addition and remodel of the yard, along with the addition of a retaining wall and new exterior stairs. It was issued in March. The home was not occupied at the time of Tuesday’s incident.
Examiner Staff Writer Katie Worth contributed to this report.