SURGOINSVILLE, Tenn. — A construction worker helping to install solar panels Tuesday in a field beside an abandoned nuclear reactor heard a dog barking as if it were in distress.
So Matt Mountie of Charlotte, N.C., found a hole in the security fence and found the dog stuck in a 30-foot hole in the floor of the reactor building at Phipps Bend Industrial Park in this town of about 2,000 residents 20 miles west of Kingsport, Tenn., in the northeast corner of the state.
The hole was about the diameter of a manhole, and its bottom was filled with water. Only the dog’s head could be seen above the water.
Mountie called Hawkins County Central Dispatch, which then called the Hawkins County Humane Society.
The humane society’s first thought: Ask two rappellers to go down the hole and retrieve the dog
Assistant Chief Curtis Winegar of the Kingsport Lifesaving Crew was the first rescuer to arrive, and he recognized this was going to be a job for professionals. By the time the rescue was over, five county agencies were at the site where the Tennessee Valley Authority once began building a nuclear power plant in the 1980s but scrapped its plans.
Meanwhile, humane society Manager Sandy Behnke and Assistant Manager Julie Baker tried to encourage the dog and keep his energy level up. Baker nicknamed him Timmy after the boy in the Lassie TV series that pop culture incorrectly says fell down a well.
Winegar intended to set up a tripod and pulley system over the hole to lower someone down about 30 feet to get Timmy. However, as he waited for the equipment to arrive, Timmy seemed to be succumbing to exhaustion.
His head was beginning to dip below the waterline. Baker knelt at the edge trying to encourage Timmy to hang on.
But Timmy was fading fast, and Winegar knew he had to act.
“We had initially contemplated using a rope and a noose to lift the dog out — kind of hook the dog with the noose and pull him out of the hole — but we were afraid that we would cause injury to the dog,” Winegar said.
“Over the last 30 minutes, the condition of the dog deteriorated quite a bit,” the assistant chief said. “We were all in agreement that we didn’t have time to rig a confined-space rescue, so we went to the backup plan and noosed the dog out. He was uninjured.”
Shortly before 4 p.m. ET, about an hour after the first rescuers began arriving, Timmy was pulled out of the hole without suffering further injury.
Humane society personnel whisked Timmy away to a veterinarian’s office for treatment.
As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, Timmy was doing OK.
When TVA abandoned its plans for a nuclear plant, it gave its property to Hawkins County and Kingsport for development of an industrial park. But the federal agency also left a dangerous concrete labyrinth behind with the half-finished reactor building that has been a temptation to curious explorers for the past three decades.
On Tuesday, authorities discovered that a hole had been cut in the security fencing on the east side of the reactor building facing the remains of what would have been the cooling tower.
Fresh graffiti adorned the walls of a long corridor leading to a large room where Timmy was trapped. That room also had fresh graffiti and broken beer bottles.
That evidence had some rescuers wondering if Timmy fell into the hole on his own or was tossed in.
Director Gary Murrell of the Hawkins County Emergency Management Agency said steps will be taken to better secure the extremely dangerous structure.
“I know one thing for sure,” Murrell said. “If we hadn’t gotten him out when we did, I don’t think he was going to last much longer. We’re just lucky someone heard him barking from the construction site because he was in a pretty bad predicament.”
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