Man and dog rescued after getting stuck in abandoned septic tank in Alberta

Septic Tank Photo Courtesy of Emily Rawson

On April 16, Emily Rawson and her boyfriend, Greg Saulnier, had Sunday dinner at her parent’s house in Okotoks, Alta., 45 kilometres south of Calgary. After the meal, Rawson and Saulnier took their three dogs, Buck, Brinley, and Ferb, out for a walk. They headed down the ridge behind Rawson’s family home, which leads to a river valley and beyond it an open field of grass that used to be a campground—a section of land Rawson’s been exploring since she was a kid. Despite being privately owned, it’s become a popular dog-walking area.

The three dogs took off to explore. Buck waded into the swampy water of a nearby pond. Rawson called Buck back but was distracted by Brinley. When she looked up, Buck was gone.

“That was just really strange,” she says, “because he’s actually a therapy dog, so he doesn’t really leave my area. And it was weird that I couldn’t hear any walking or any sign of him.”

Septic Tank
Photo Courtesy of Emily Rawson

Rawson shouted Buck’s name. When she didn’t hear anything, she texted her mom at the house, asking her parents to come and help look. She kept shouting Buck’s name until finally she heard a single bark. “It kind of sounded like there was an echo,” Rawson says. She checked the storm pipes near the pond but didn’t see anything, so she walked further into the campground. That’s when she heard what sounded like a panicked scream.

She’d never heard Buck make that noise. “My heart just instantly dropped when I heard that because I knew something was wrong,” Rawson says. Adrenaline kicked and Rawson and Saulnier hunted for the source of the barking. Rawson walked deeper into the field and almost tumbled into an opening in the grass the size of a manhole cover. Peering down, Rawson could see Buck about a metre and a half below, treading water.

It turns out the hole was an abandoned septic tank filled with cold water, a remnant of the campground. Rawson and Saulnier both reached into grab Buck but it was too deep. Unsure what to do, Rawson started having a panic attack, shouting at Buck to keep swimming.

Meanwhile, Rawson’s parents were walking down the ridge, headed over to help. At this point, Buck had been in the water for close to 10 minutes, and Saulnier noticed the dog’s head bobbing and slipping under.

“I keep ropes and all that kind of stuff in my vehicle,” Saulnier says. “But my vehicle was back at the house up the hill. And when I looked back at Buck, his head was up and down in the water. I knew we were running out of time.”

Saulnier stripped off his sweater, socks, and shoes, and slipped into the hole, plunging into the ice-cold water. “You could actually feel how cold the water was from the surface. You could see Buck’s breath it was so cold in there,” he says. “Once I dropped into the water, I submerged past my head and I still couldn’t touch bottom. I just went into cold shock.”

Septic Tank
Photo Courtesy of Emily Rawson

Saulnier collected himself, gripping a metal pole that ran vertically down the tank with one hand and grabbing Buck with the other. He pushed the 60-pound dog onto his chest and then hoisted him one-handed up towards the opening, kicking with his feet. It took two attempts, but Saulnier thrust Buck up towards Rawson where she’d been joined by her parents. Rawson’s dad managed to grab Buck by his ears and hoist him out of the hole.

“Buck was pretty limp,” Rawson says. “He didn’t really spark up for a while. I didn’t even think he was alive. I couldn’t look at him. And then I was worried about Greg in the hole.”

While Saulnier may have saved Buck, he now found himself stuck in the hole with the freezing water turning his body numb. Rawson and her dad grabbed Saulnier’s hands but were unable to lift him from the hole. And as the minutes ticked by, it was clear the cool temperature was making Saulnier weaker. The family had called emergency services but there was no indication of when they’d show up.

Looking for a way to get Saulnier out, Rawson dashed back to the house for a rope. “I ran up that hill,” she says. “It took about two minutes, which is normally about a 10-minute walk. I think adrenaline kicked in because I remember I couldn’t see. I was so dizzy, and I felt so sick.”

Rawson returned with a rope and her dad lowered it to Saulnier who tied it around his torso like a harness. Rawson’s dad held the rope tight, allowing Saulnier to let go of the metal pole and relax his arms. He continued to speak with Saulnier, keeping him conscious.

Septic Tanks
Photo Courtesy of Emily Rawson

“It was pitch black and freezing cold, and looking up at that hole, it was so close but so far, and you don’t have the strength to get yourself out. It was a scary thought being helpless like that,” Saulnier says. “I started to go in and out just from being so cold, and then off in the distance, I heard someone walking.”

The Okotoks Fire Department had arrived. The firefighters lowered a sling to Saulnier and hoisted him out of the hole. Saulnier’s skin was purple. He’d been in the water for 25 minutes. After being checked for injuries and signs of hypothermia, Saulnier was given the okay. “The fire department said if Greg was in there another two minutes, it would have been a completely different story,” Rawson says.

Septic Tank
Photo Courtesy of Emily Rawson

After the incident, the fire department told the town council about the open septic tank. Okotoks sent a team to investigate. The hole was estimated to be about three and a half metres deep. Since the abandoned campground is on private property, the town alerted the owner and asked them to seal the hole.

Septic Tank
Photo Courtesy of Greg Saulnier

A spokesperson for the town said that the property owner was shocked to find out what happened and is taking steps to seal the hole.

“The property owner was quite diligent in responding to that circumstance,” the spokesperson said.

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