By Nash Dunn
O-N-E Staff Writer
Billy Townsend was floating at the bottom of a well – a cold, dark, deep and dirty hole.
He fell 40 feet while working on the old well’s pump more than an hour ago, barely hanging on to the slippery clay walls and few drop cords lowered to him.
“I’m cold,” Townsend’s voice echoed faintly.
I was standing outside the fence that surrounded the home’s well and backyard, but I could still hear his voice resonate from time to time. I couldn’t see much through a crack in the aged picket fence, and the emergency responders wouldn’t let any reporters any closer.
Peering through an inch-wide gap between the pickets, I could see rescuers working with the custom-rigged pulley system they set up. A ladder leaned against one of the well’s walls, and a myriad of men in T-shirts and fireman hats peered inside the deep hole. There was more activity than before – more movement.
“Here he comes,” someone said.
On cue, the cluster of reporters raised their still and video cameras above the fence, each person vying for the best shot of Townsend’s long-awaited resurfacing.
I raised my camera over my head to clear the eight-foot-high fence. I peered through a crack between planks.
“Come on. Come on. Come on,” I whispered.
You could hear everyone holding their breath. The chirp of a bird rang across the sky. The droning hum of rescue vehicles was amplified. No one spoke. Quiet.
Then, with one last heave from his rescuers, Townsend appeared.
Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click.
A rapid fire of camera shutters broke the silence. I tried to gauge what I was shooting over the fence, but it was a gamble.
“Spray and pray,” one reporter said.
After firing off multiple shots, I closed one eye and squinted carefully through the fence. Townsend appeared to be OK, but was shivering and flailing his arms around at his sides. His brown and dirty T-shirt was drenched from his chest down, but he took it off and chucked it aside quickly. He was a big guy – probably a football player in his younger days. And, let’s just say, you wouldn’t want to make him mad.
He had a cigarette in his mouth before he took 10 steps. After throwing a towel around his head, he moved closer to my side of the fence. Paramedics and rescue personnel swarmed around the shivering man, but he seemed fine. His teeth chattered and his voice hopped around a little, but those were his only tells.
As he kept moving closer and closer to where I was standing behind the fence, I realized an opportunity to take another photograph was approaching. I lifted my camera again and fired off two to three shots before a paramedic spotted me and the other photographers.
“Really,” she said. “Give the man some privacy. He’s been in a well for the last hour.”
I, along with the rest of the Catawba County makeshift paparazzi, quickly lowered our cameras after being spotted. The rest of the paramedics uttered something similar across the fence at us.
Townsend, who now noticed the cameras for the first time, did not shy away.
“You want a picture, I’ll give you a picture,” Townsend said as he moved toward the fence. To this day, I don’t know what motion he made toward us, but I can imagine it was not a friendly wave.
After being spotted across the fence, Townsend’s aunt came out to shoo us away.
By and by, though, Townsend got warm and came out to talk. He was an extremely nice man and very gracious for telling his story after such a frightening sequence of events.
His rescuer, Tony Lutz, was also gracious enough to speak to me about the event — something he said “he has not done in quite some time.”
Townsend’s epic fall and rescue was a real-life drama of life and death. Another daily display of conflict and resolution. I applaud all the rescuers and Townsend for their resiliency.
It was spectacular to observe — even if it was through an old picket fence near the Lincoln County line.
Nash Dunn is a reporter and columnist for The Observer News Enterprise. His column appears in the Wednesday edition of The O-N-E. Reach Dunn at email@example.com .