Two Charles County men drowned after becoming trapped i a narrow well -- some 40 feet deep but only 31 inches wide -- they were cleaning yesterday.
The men's claustrophobic predicament some four stories below ground level frustrated attempts at rescuing them over several hours.
Three rescuers passed out because of a lack of oxygen during attempts to pull George L. Montgomery, 49, of Nanjemoy and Gregory J. Keys, 40, of Indian Head from the well at a home in the 3400 block of Washington Ave. near La Plata.
"You're talking to these people, and you're watching them become disoriented, passing out and drowning," said Sgt. Dwight Miller, a spokesman for the Charles County Sheriff's Office and a witness to the rescue attempts. "There's nothing you can do to bring them out quicker. You're helpless, basically."
The men were working for a client of a well-repair business they operated in addition to their jobs with Charles County government.
The incident began shortly before noon, Sergeant Miller said, when Mr. Montgomery complained of lightheadedness after being lowered into the well. Mr. Keys, unable to raise his partner to the surface by cranking a cable, decided to go to his rescue.
The two were able to get onto a chair suspended by the cable, but as Mr. Keys' son raised them toward the surface, the cable snapped, Sergeant Miller said. How close they were to the surface was not known.
Both men slid to the bottom of the well, which contained 20 feet of water.
"When I got there, both men were alive, but they were beginning to panic," Sergeant Miller said.
Fire and rescue personnel who tested the air quality in the well found that it was extremely poor. The air contained only 17 percent oxygen. For a person to remain conscious, the oxygen pTC level must be at least 21 percent, the sergeant said. The men were not using solvents to clean the well.
The men became disoriented from lack of oxygen and could not follow the rescuers' instructions, Sergeant Miller said.
Mr. Keys kept putting a line that was thrown to him around his neck, instead of his torso. Before the men could be rescued, they both became unconscious and their heads went under the water, Sergeant Miller said.
Rescue personnel were able to pull Mr. Keys out fairly quickly, but he was pronounced dead after being taken to Physicians Memorial Hospital in La Plata.
Rescuers had more difficulty extricating Mr. Montgomery, who had sunk 12 feet beneath the water's surface, Sergeant Miller said.
Three divers who went in to try to get oxygen to him and rescue him passed out themselves for lack of oxygen and had to be pulled up.
The three were treated at the same hospital and released.
Finally, the Prince George's County Confinement Rescue Team, which has more advanced rescue equipment, was called in. Mr. Montgomery was removed from the well at 5:11 p.m. and was pronounced dead by the county medical examiner.
The cause of death for both men was drowning brought on by lack of oxygen.
"Basically, they used up the oxygen that was in there," Sergeant Miller said. "Before long, all you're breathing is carbon dioxide."