Neighbors rescue man buried in snow for hours

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Thursday, February 3, 2011
— Todd Herrington didn't expect to hear an answer as he cleared 2 feet of snow off the face that was buried below.

"I said, 'Joe,' " Herrington said. "I just figured I was saying it to a dead person."

Joe Latta answered.

"I couldn't believe a voice came out of there," Herrington said Wednesday. "I really thought he was frozen stiff. His arm wasn't moving, just sticking straight out. I have no idea, under 2 feet of snow, how you would breathe."

Latta, 66, told rescuers he ventured outside of his Rockshire Drive home about 5 a.m. Wednesday to get the mail, fell in the driveway and couldn't get up. Latta lives alone. Snow likely drifted as he lay there on his back in temperatures that dipped to the low teens. At about 6:45 a.m., snowplows pushed up more snow, covering all of Latta except a gloved hand.

Police officer Todd Schumann said Latta was covered with 29 inches of snow with probably another 4 to 6 feet below him.

About 9 a.m., Betsy Nelson, a neighbor across the street, noticed what she assumed was a piece of garbage or a little animal jumping on the drift. But something made her uneasy. Perhaps it was the garage door that was usually closed but this morning was open. Nelson hauled out a pair of binoculars.

She called the Herringtons next door.

"You guys are going to think I'm crazy," she recalled saying. "But I think there's a hand sticking from the snow."

Herrington had just finished his shift as a firefighter and was snowblowing his driveway. He crossed the street. When he found the glove, it wasn't moving.

He cleared snow from the hand so he could work his way to a head. Snow was stuffed in Latta's nostrils and was packed behind his lenses. Sally Herrington brought over a shovel, and her husband carefully shoveled snow from Latta's chest. Neighbors later found his ball cap blown two houses down.

Schumann, next on the scene, quickly dug a trench so emergency workers could get to Latta to help.

Latta was shivering violently and was stiff, Schumann said. He saw no footprints leading to the spot where the man lay. Latta told Schumann he didn't recall going unconscious. He remembered the snow pushing over him, burying him.

Herrington said Latta's clothes were dry underneath and speculated that the snow captured his body heat.

Latta was hypothermic, and Lt. Patrick Kilbane of the fire department said he was surprised he could understand his rescuers.

But how did he breathe?

"Good question," Kilbane said.

"The poor guy couldn't talk, he was shivering so bad," he said.

But Latta wasn't hurt and was breathing OK.

"What would have been going through that poor guy's mind?" Herrington wondered. "Am I going to freeze first or suffocate first?"

Herrington said it is a miracle that Latta, who was treated at and released from Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center, is alive. Several times Wednesday, Herrington stooped down, weighing the snow in his hand.

On a normal day, Nelson would have been at work long before 9 a.m.

"Someone was really looking out for him today," Herrington said.

Last updated: 4:35 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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