Well covers not as safe as they seem
Mark Bertolino’s voice broke as he described his granddaughter’s last morning.
Lia, just 20 months old, went out to the barn with her dad one morning this past July, just as she did every day. Her mom and 6-year-old brother were in the yard, too. She was toddling back toward the house with the family’s two heeler dogs, not more than a hundred feet from either parent. From the barn, her dad looked back toward the house, saw the heelers walking around strangely and knew something was wrong.
Lia had just disappeared. They looked all over. Then her brother noticed a 10-inch hole in the concrete well cover. They spotted her doll inside. Lia had fallen in, possibly hitting her head as she fell, and drowned. Rescue crews worked for three hours to revive her, but they couldn’t help. She died that day.
“A week before, I’d have said it wasn’t possible for her to fall through,” says Mark, a Witt farmer. “We’re not talking some old rickety wooden top.”
In fact, his other son, a strapping 21-year-old, had stood on the well cover just three days before Lia fell through. Lia weighed 29 pounds.
“Had the concrete deteriorated?” Mark wonders. The cover was built like a tank, but without rebar — a surprise to the Bertolinos. The well was probably 60 to 80 years old; it’s hard telling when the cap was poured. On one edge, the concrete had begun to flake, but not enough to make anyone think it was unsafe. Mark says the hole that collapsed beneath Lia was hardly bigger than her feet.
Wells like that are common across the Midwest, often located fairly close to the house. Some are still in use, while others, like the Bertolinos’ well, have been abandoned in favor of rural water lines. Mark is an avid hunter and says he’s come across plenty of old wells in the timber that don’t even have a cover.
He says in the months since Lia’s death, folks from all over the state have contacted his family, sharing stories of how they’ve filled in old wells.
And while statistics on farm-related deaths don’t show accidents like Lia’s to be common — in fact, none were recorded in Illinois in recent history — the accident serves as a reminder to check well covers and fill in unused wells.
“That concrete looked safe. We thought it was safe.” It’s a sentiment Mark repeats often, as though he can still hardly believe what happened. He and Lia’s dad took a backhoe and filled in the well within a week of her death.
“I can’t think of anything worse than losing one of your children,” he adds. “You just can’t quite grasp it. There’s always a lot of questions that can’t be answered. We’re obviously broken.
“It’s never going to be the same, and you’re never going to get over it. It breaks your heart every day, and it will until you die.
“But maybe this will help somebody else. And the loss won’t be in vain.”
This article published in the October, 2010 edition of PRAIRIE FARMER.