Sinkhole sends golfer falling near St. Louis

In this cell phone image taken March 8, 2013, Hank Martinez, top, Ed Magaletta, right, and Russ Nobbe, look into an 18-foot-deep sinkhole that golfer Mark Minhal fell into at Annbriar Golf Course in Waterloo, Ill. (Courtesy of golfmanna.com, Mike Peters)

In this cell phone image taken March 8, 2013, Hank Martinez, top, Ed Magaletta, right, and Russ Nobbe, look into an 18-foot-deep sinkhole that golfer Mark Minhal fell into at Annbriar Golf Course in Waterloo, Ill. (Courtesy of golfmanna.com, Mike Peters)

What should have been an enjoyable day of golf amid warming weather took a turn for the worse Friday at Annbriar Golf Course in Waterloo, Ill., where a golfer was felled by a sinkhole about 18 feet deep while standing in the middle of the 14th fairway.

Mark Mihal, 43, a mortgage broker from Creve Coeur, Mo., suffered a dislocated shoulder at the course south of St. Louis. He was pulled out rather quickly with some help from his regular foursome as well as course staff.

Playing partner Ed Magaletta, 58, said Mihal and Mike Peters, who had hit "quintessential perfect drives," were checking yardages on the par-5 hole. Magaletta and Hank Martinez were near a fairway bunker when Magaletta happened to look over and suddenly couldn't see Mihal.

"I shouted over, 'Mark fell down the hill,' " Magaletta told Golfweek.com on Tuesday. "Mike shouted, 'Eddie, come over here, this is crazy.'

"We couldn't see him, we could only hear him yelling. Mike went crawling up to the hole, got as close as we felt was safe . . . we were holding onto each other's feet," Magaletta said, describing a human chain.

As recounted on Mihal's website golfmanna.com by his wife, Lori, Mihal had felt the ground begin to give way beneath him, but he couldn't move quickly enough to escape the fall.

Later, "Mark said it felt like he fell for a long time," Magaletta said.

With a flashlight in his pocket, by chance, Magaletta surveyed the opening and saw the top was mostly secure because of its shape – like an egg or a bell, the top provided solid ground from which to work except immediately adjacent to the opening. A "black crack" extending out, however, lent a sense of urgency and the men didn't want to wait for emergency responders.

"We didn't have time to think," he said. "We were all frightened, thinking, 'We've got to get him out of there.' We wanted to protect him and get him back to safety."

Realizing Mihal was claustrophobic and could go into shock from fear and the pain of his injury, Magaletta just as importantly knew from a past broken shoulder of his own that Mihal's pain alone could hinder him greatly.

Magaletta said Tuesday that his own medical training and that of family members helped him react quickly. He fashioned a sling out of a jacket, practicing first on Peters before heading into the sinkhole to help Mihal. Once there, Magaletta also asked Mihal to move his fingers, toes, etc., before beginning to help him back above ground.

"I got him up, secured his arm in the sling, and I had him hold his arm up, grab onto his shirt so it wouldn't move," Magaletta said. "Then I wrapped the rope twice around his waist, around his leg and around his chest.

"They pulled, I pushed, and we got him out of there."

At least one other golfer in history has not fared so well. In 2009, Takae Gassho, 38, of Sapporo, Japan, was golfing with her family at Le Petaw Golf Club in Tokyo when a sinkhole opened beneath her, causing her to fall about 15 feet and drown, Agence-France Presse reported. That sinkhole was attributed to runoff from melting snow eroding the ground beneath the turf.

With limestone bedrock the norm in the St. Louis area, rainwater could have opened up the hole that felled Mihal, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which originally reported Mihal's injury.

Mihal couldn't help but think of a more recent sinkhole-caused fatality, though — Lori Mihal wrote that her husband had just read about a man who died Feb. 28 in Seffner, Fla., when a sinkhole opened beneath his bedroom while he slept.

Despite the drama of the situation, Magaletta said there were a couple of light moments that presented themselves at first – if only to the members of the foursome not injured beneath the turf.

"We didn't get to finish," he said. "That was kind of the joke of the day, telling him, 'Let them put your shoulder back in so we can finish the round.' " Magaletta said he intends to return to the course.

And despite Magaletta's flashlight coming in handy, he got a bit of ribbing about having one in his pocket during a round of golf.

"We were trying not to laugh," he said, adding he had wanted to take it to his car and leave it there, but (fortunately, as things turned out) had forgotten to place it in its intended spot.

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