Mattie Moore was taking her usual two-hour walk around Martin Luther King Park with her dog early Sunday morning when her foot and leg suddenly fell through the ground. Holding herself above ground with her elbows, she slowly crawled out to safety.
But as she struggled to escape what turned out to be a deep sinkhole a short distance off a walking path along East Parade Avenue, her dog saw her distress and came running back to her.
“He thought something was wrong,” she said. “He comes up behind me and falls right in.”
Her 3-year-old German shepherd, Mack, fell a long way. He whimpered and cried while the terrified Moore called police. Before long, the police and 13 members of the Buffalo Fire Department’s Technical Rescue Team showed up for an unusual rescue mission.
It turns out that the sinkhole, which was only a few feet wide at the top, opened up to a much larger space about 10 feet wide and about as deep further down. The bottom foot or so of the sinkhole was filled with water.
Firefighters could hear water running down below and realized that a broken water pipe had caused some massive soil erosion just below the surface.
Mark Hillery, 3rd Battalion chief, called in the Technical Rescue Team because the team has special expertise in trench rescue techniques, which were needed in this case.
Hillery said that when he arrived, Moore was clearly distraught.
“She was frantic,” he said. “You could tell she really loved her dog. She was crying. She was very emotional.”
Hillery admitted he didn’t help matters when he told his rescue team to slow down and proceed safely because it was “only a dog” down there. He meant that high risk was unnecessary because a human life wasn’t at stake, but Moore erupted into another fit of tears.
It was dark outside; Moore and Mack had fallen into the sinkhole shortly after 4:30 a.m. Moore, 54, said that ever since her mother died years ago, she began waking up at 3:30 in the morning and taking her dog with her for two- or three-hour park walks before getting her son ready for school or going to church.
“I’ve got my dog with me, and the Lord with me,” she said.
When Hillery and the Technical Rescue Team showed up, they laid down wooden boards to help distribute their weight around the sinkhole and widened the sinkhole opening. Then they placed a tripod over the hole and attached a rope to firefighter Michael Paveljack.
By the time firefighters lowered a ladder in the sinkhole, Mack had been stuck in the dark, leg-deep in water for more than an hour, Hillery said. Firefighters were worried that the German shepherd might be dangerous, but Moore said she assured them he wouldn’t hurt them.
Paveljack said that when he finally got down to the bottom of the sinkhole, which he described as shaped like an egg, the dog was glad to see him.
“He was scared,” he said. “He was ready to get out of there. I tried to lift him up, but he was too heavy.”
Firefighters created a makeshift harness that ran under the Mack’s chest and neck. Then Paveljack heaved the dog up from below while the other firefighters pulled on the rope from above.
The rescue – from the time Paveljack got into the sinkhole to the time he and Mack got out – took only a minute, he said.
Moore, who was worried her dog was hurt and would wind up with huge veterinary bills, was relieved to see Mack.
“He was happy to be out,” she said. “It was beautiful thing. He was wagging his tail, looking at all the people.”
After getting out of the hole, Mack initially seemed to be suffering only from a sore hip but was otherwise fine. Today, however, Mack was throwing up and moving slowly. Moore, who has a limited income, said she hopes she receives her W-2 income form soon so she can get a refund advance to take him to the vet if he’s truly sick.
Hillery called the city Sunday to get crews out to fix the broken water pipe. Barriers were erected around the sinkhole until the broken pipe can be fixed, he said.
Paveljack remembered Moore being grateful to everyone afterward.
“She thanked us and said she was going to say a prayer for all of us at church today,” he recalled.
Moore said she did, indeed, offer prayers of thanks for the police and firefighters and was going to mention some of them by name to her pastor next week.
Mack, meanwhile, hadn’t had a bath as of Sunday afternoon. Moore said she’d love to take him to a groomer but can’t afford it, so she was waiting for her nephew today to help lift the dog into her tub.
“It’s no problem,” she said. “He’s dirty. He’s still my dog. I still love him.”