Fetid pits

From an alert, Preventing Deaths of Farm Workers in Manure Pits, issued by the American National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health:

On July 26, 1989, five farm workers died after consecutively entering a manure pit on their farm. The pit measured 20 by 24 feet and was 10 feet deep. The victims were a 65-year-old dairy farmer, his two sons aged 37 and 28, a 15-year-old grandson, and a 63-year-old nephew. The younger son initially entered the pit to replace a shear pin on an agitator shaft. (NOTE: Agitation of the manure, which is required to facilitate transfer, causes a rapid release of the gases formed during decomposition.) While attempting to climb out of the pit, the initial victim was overcome and fell to the bottom. The grandson then entered the pit to attempt a rescue. He too was overcome and collapsed. The nephew, the older son, and the dairy farmer then entered the pit one at a time, attempting to rescue those already overcome. Each was overcome and collapsed in turn. A carpet installer working at the farm house then entered the pit to attempt a rescue. He too was overcome but was rescued by his assistant and subsequently recovered. Finally, the owner of a local farm implement business arrived on the scene with two of his workers and, using a rope, extricated the five victims from the pit. When the local emergency rescue squad arrived on the scene approximately 20 minutes after the incident, they immediately began cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The nephew was pronounced dead at the scene. The remaining four victims were transported to the local hospital. The farmer and his younger son were pronounced dead on arrival, and the older son died an hour after reaching the emergency room. The grandson was transferred to a major trauma center by helicopter but he died approximately 6 hours after his removal from the pit. Reports of the medical examiner cite methane asphyxiation as the cause of these five deaths.

Dying in this fashion is the sign of a society that is civilised, organised, so it is inevitable that we should find similar accounts in eighteenth century France. Alain Corbin in his The Foul and the Fragrant: Odour and the Social Imagination quotes a report by Jean-Nöel Hallé, the first professor of public hygiene in Paris (1794), to the effect that, on March 23rd, 1782, leading lights of the Parisian sanitary establishment gathered to test a new antimephitic substance during the evacuation of the H de la Grenade’s cesspool, in which the landlady believed medical students had been dropping leftover limbs. It had snowed heavily that morning, but the scientists and labourers worked without incident until just after lunch when one of the cleaners ran out of breath and fell in. It took a while to get him out, and, seeing him dying on the street, a cesspit ventilator entrepreneur, Inspecteur Verville, decided that this would be a good moment to demonstrate some mouth-to-mouth:

He had scarcely inhaled the air that was coming from the mouth of the mortally ill man when he shouted “I am a dead man!” and fell down unconscious… I saw that he was making an extreme effort to regain his breath; he was held by the arms, as he reared up with a load groan; his chest and his stomach moved up and down in violent convulsive movements. He had lost consciousness; his limbs were cold; his pulse became weaker and weaker… Occasionally his mouth even filled with foam, his limbs became stiff, and the sick man appeared to be having a genuine epileptic fit.

He survived, but if you’re going drainspotting, please try to pick one like Jean Valjean found in Les misérables:

Through the bars a view could be had of a dark aperture, something like the flue of a chimney, or the pipe of a cistern. Jean Valjean darted forward. His old art of escape rose to his brain like an illumination. To thrust aside the stones, to raise the grating, to lift Marius, who was as inert as a dead body, upon his shoulders, to descend, with this burden on his loins, and with the aid of his elbows and knees into that sort of well, fortunately not very deep, to let the heavy trap, upon which the loosened stones rolled down afresh, fall into its place behind him, to gain his footing on a flagged surface three metres below the surface, — all this was executed like that which one does in dreams, with the strength of a giant and the rapidity of an eagle; this took only a few minutes.

Jean Valjean found himself with Marius, who was still unconscious, in a sort of long, subterranean corridor.

There reigned profound peace, absolute silence, night.

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