1991: Sewer worker, rescuer remember tragic death
Ed Schanz Jr. was the first man to go after Jack Blake.
It was a warm August morning in 1991 when Belleville sewer department workers found a manhole covered with dirt. After getting the lid off, they saw the line was blocked with grease, and Blake climbed down to unclog the line located off South Illinois Street. He had been down in sewers before, but this time he was overcome with sewer fumes.
Schanz said he recalls Blake telling him he felt dizzy as he was climbing out of the hole. Schanz tried to pull Blake up, but he slipped out of his grasp and fell to the bottom of the sewer, which was about 12 feet deep.
Schanz, who thought Blake was having a problem because of the hot weather, remembers telling another worker, “Call for help, I’m going down to get him.”
“I picked him up and I started trying to climb out, and that’s all I remember,” Schanz said. That’s because he also was overcome by the fumes.
“We ran into sewer clogs before; we never knew there was gas trapped underneath it,” Schanz said.
I picked him up and I started trying to climb out, and that’s all I remember.
Ed Schanz, former Belleville sewer department employee
Former Assistant Fire Chief Art Jacobs, who was getting his fire department car serviced at a shop nearby on South Illinois Street, was the first firefighter on the scene.
Jacobs put on his air tank and mask and climbed down to the two victims.
“Eddie was sitting down at the bottom of the manhole with Jack laying across his lap,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs said he couldn’t get a pulse from Blake, a friend he had known since their high school days. He put his air mask on Schanz’s face, but it wasn’t enough to revive him.
When Jacobs’ air supply was exhausted, he climbed out of the hole. By now, other firefighters had arrived and former Capt. Dan Bauer went down the sewer to fasten a rescue line to the victims.
The firefighters were able to pull Blake and Schanz from the sewer, but Blake died from his injuries while Schanz survived.
A 25-year reunion
Schanz contacted the News-Democrat after the BND published an article about Belleville firefighters training last Monday to rescue someone trapped in a sewer line. Blake’s family members also called the BND, and on Thursday they met with Schanz and Jacobs at the BND.
They exchanged hugs and talked about how they miss Blake.
Betty Blake Patterson praised the “wonderful” men who tried to save her husband. She said Blake was “very well-liked by everybody.”
“We golfed a lot,” she said.
Blake also enjoyed shooting pool and fishing.
He was a great dad and he was a great grandpa, and he missed a lot of his life.
Donna Pearce, one of Jack Blake’s three daughters
“He was a great dad and he was a great grandpa, and he missed a lot of his life,” said Donna Pearce, one of Blake’s three daughters.
Schanz fondly remembers how Blake loved to drink a ton of coffee — hot or cold. Schanz is now 52, the same age Blake was when he died.
Pearce said she remembers her father for “the good man that he was.”
Lack of equipment
In the months after Blake’s death and still to this day, Blake’s family members lament the fact that in 1991, Belleville sewer department workers were not given the equipment to safely do their job.
“They should have had the proper equipment before ever going down there,” Dianne Blake said in a 1992 BND article about her father.
Her opinion hasn’t changed.
Following Blake’s death, the state Department of Labor cited the city for 11 “serious” violations for not providing proper equipment or training for the safe entry of sewer lines.
“If they had the equipment they have today, he probably would still be alive,” said Blake’s youngest daughter, Denise Durako. “He had three daughters and couldn’t wait to have grandsons.
“He didn’t get to enjoy any of them.”
Schanz, who is now a truck driver, said that after Blake’s death, the sewer department workers began to receive training and equipment.
Randy Smith Sr., who is currently the assistant director of the sewer department and was with the department in 1991, said sewer workers now use a meter to check the air in a sewer line before going into it. Hydrogen sulfide is a gas that workers can encounter in a sewer.
The city actually had one gas meter at the time of Blake’s death, but Schanz and Smith said it was not used.
Sewer department workers now have masks hooked to an air tank with a 100-foot hose along with a tripod and harness system to lower and raise workers.
We’ve made some strides off a tragic situation. It doesn’t bring Jackie back, but it does help the next guy.
Former Assistant Fire Chief Art Jacobs
Jacobs, whose son is now a Belleville firefighter, said the fire department also upgraded its equipment after Blake died.
“We’ve made some strides off a tragic situation,” Jacobs said. “It doesn’t bring Jackie back, but it does help the next guy.”
For Blake’s family, his loss remains a great void in their lives.
“There’s not a day that goes by that we don’t think about him,” Dianne Blake said of her father. “What if, what if, what if,” she said as her voice trailed off.