Initial test results indicate the couple who died earlier this month in a rural Guthrie County well likely died from a lack of oxygen. The Coon Rapids couple, 36-year-old Jamie Eyberg and his 34-year-old wife, Ann, died August 14.
Guthrie County Sheriff Marty Arganbright says samples of air indicated there was an extremely low level of oxygen down in the well. “Coon Rapids Fire Department did a test that showed low oxgen, less than five percent. Ours showed less than five percent and then I had Council Bluffs Fire Department…(come) up with some other equipment,” Arganbright says. “And that’s one of the most specific things is low oxygen.”
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, humans lapse into a coma and die within 40 seconds if they’re in an atmosphere that has an oxygen level of four to six percent. The sheriff admits he was surprised by the results, as he had assumed gases had built up down in the well and the couple were overcome by the fumes. Arganbright says this case should raise concern for others contemplating the servicing of similar wells.
“It makes me a little afraid that can happen anywhere now,” Arganbright says.
Ann Eyberg called 911 when she realized her husband was in trouble down in the well and she died when she went into the well, trying to save him. “He’d been in there numerous times before,” Arganbright says. “You know, why it was like that? I don’t know if it was because of the high humidity and the heat and all the rain we’ve had and the conditions were like that — or what was going on.”
Experts say any number of factors can lead to depleted oxygen levels in a well, from the rusting of support beams or equipment, to the growth of bacteria and algae. Arganbright hopes this incident serves as a warning to those thinking of jumping into a well or a pit that has been sealed off.
“Be careful going into service wells or closed spaces,” he says.
Guthrie County Environmental Health Director Stephen Patterson says he’s gotten calls from professionals who work on wells who’ve heard about the Eybergs deaths. Patterson says his consistent advice is that wells should be properly ventilated and no one should work on a well alone. The Eyberg’s well had a small opening on the top which apparently was the entry point for the couple’s descent, but a much larger cover was still in place.
Reporting by Ric Hanson, KJAN, Atlantic and Radio Iowa’s O. Kay Henderson