Location: Columbia, South Carolina
Date: May 3, 1992
Dr. Mary Neuffer of Columbia, South Carolina, had always been extremely conscious of the accidents that usually befall children, but on May 3, 1992, her seven-year-old son, John, fell victim to one that was unimaginable. When Dr. Neuffer was called in to deliver a baby, her sister-in-law, Rene Neuffer, came over to babysit John and his sisters, four-year-old Katie and two-year-old Caroline. Rene and the kids were playing a game of hide-and-seek, and the children scrambled as their aunt counted to one hundred with her eyes closed. John, who had earlier grumbled about not finding any good hiding places around the house, ran into his parents' bedroom.
John scanned the room. There it was, he thought, the perfect hiding place. No one would find him in his parents' laundry chute. John opened the door and climbed inside the six-inch-by-twelve-inch chute. He intended to balance on a small ledge at its mouth, but he immediately lost his footing and slipped, feet first. John's body was now wedged inside the narrow shaft, halfway between the first and second floors.
Rene was still counting when she heard John's cry for help. She ran into the bedroom and looked down the chute, where she saw the top of John's head and one small hand. She reached in and tried to grab it, but he slipped farther down. Rene saw that she needed help, so she phoned her mother, seventy-two-year-old Irene Neuffer.
Irene drove over, took one look at the situation, and decided the only way to get John out was to cut the frame of the chute. They got the tools, but the vibrations caused by the sawing made John scream in fear and pain. "Oh, Meema, just call 911," John called out. "Bless your heart. Why didn't I think of that?" responded Irene.
By the time rescue units from the Columbia Fire Department arrived on the scene, John had been stuck in the laundry chute for one hour. Firefighters, not trained in this type of rescue, discussed the best approach to extricate John, while paramedic Britt Ogden tried to loosen him with a slick substance called "defib jelly." It soon became evident that John wasn't going to budge, so the firefighters concurred they would have to rip apart the ceiling in the kitchen, where the chute emptied out. While the men worked slowly and carefully, John grew more frightened, sure that he was going to die. "I was saying to myself, I'm going to be stuck here forever," recalls John. "And I didn't want to die younger than Elvis."
Two hours after John got stuck, firemen had finally ripped away enough of the ceiling and the shaft to pull him out, into the kitchen. The process had been a slow one to insure John's safety. John insisted that all he wanted was a Tylenol and rest, but paramedics didn't want to take any chances in the event of skull or neck injurues. They put him in a C-collar, strapped him to a backboard, and transported him to the hospital, where his mother was delivering a baby.
Dr. Mary Neuffer met John in the emergency room and was relieved. He was covered with jelly and soot, but otherwise he was in healthy condition. When John returned to class, he recounted his narrow escape to a school assembly. He wanted his schoolmates to know that it's important not to hide in small places. "Don't go in small places with walls around it where you'll get stuck," said John. "And never go near a laundry chute unless you are as skinny as a stick."
Irene is pleased that her grandson came out of the adventure unscathed. "John Henry, he's the pick of the litter," says Irene.