Jason Courtney was walking through tall grass two weeks ago on Friday afternoon when he fell into an uncovered manhole near Highway 59 and the beltway. He’d lie at the bottom of the 20-foot drain for the next nine days, covered in sewage with a shattered ankle and other injuries, until a construction crew heard Jason screaming for help early Monday morning around 2 a.m.
The pain and terror at the bottom of the manhole was like nothing he’d ever felt, Jason said. He ate snakes and insects to survive and at one point he pulled an inch-long bone fragment out of his foot. A few times he thought about killing himself with the knife he had with him. The sewage he was lying in was about 3 inches deep, but it would rise up to his face every time nearby toilets would flush.
“It’d probably go up three or four inches,” he said. “It would come up past my neck and I was afraid I was going to drown, but I could raise my head up a little bit. The water was coming down pretty damn fast and hard. I could hear it before I could see it. It sounded like a raging bull.”
Jason, who is 40 years old, is in the hospital now. He’s still in pain, but he’s feeling better than he was this time last week.
“These mediocre little freakin’ pills ain’t working, and they won’t let me outside to smoke,” he said. He told FPH about his experience at the bottom of the manhole in phone interviews on Wednesday night and Thursday morning.
“When I fell, I knew I had broken something,” Jason said, starting his story from the beginning. “Well, ‘broke’ is an understatement because it completely broke and shattered my ankle. There is no freakin’ words to describe the pain. I had a bad motorcycle wreck a long time ago and I broke and busted up a lot of bones in my body, but this here hurts worse than that.”
“I immediately thought ‘Oh shit. I’m going to die.’”
The manhole was close to the road, but the tall grass made it impossible to see and the traffic muffled Jason’s screams. He said he managed to take his boots off before the pain from his broken ankle became too bad, and he was able to curl up against the wall to put his foot in a comfortable position.
He had fallen into a small, curved room — probably about four feet wide.
“I’m five feet five, and I couldn’t lie down,” he said, describing the area as a sewage access point.
It wasn’t completely dark in there, especially during the day time, and he could hear the cars outside. Three smaller plastic tubes were connected to where he had fallen, and that’s where the sewage water would come from.
“When people would flush, tons of poop and toilet paper would come out,” Jason said. “I was in the fetal position, curled around the round side of the wall because that was the only way I could lay and feel comfortable. Every time the toilets would flush it would come up to the top of my neck. It was really scary because I couldn’t get up.
And it wouldn’t drain automatically, either. Poop would sit there for two and three hours before it would drain. And that would happen about twice a day. And I could hear it coming. I’m going ‘Oh crap, here we go again.’”
He said that he ate snakes and crickets and grasshoppers to survive. He snatched the insects up whenever he could, and the snakes would periodically fall down into the sewage from the open manhole above.
“I killed them — I bashed the heads on the wall and cut their heads off,” he said. “I had a knife with me; I skinned and ate the inside parts. They would drop down from the top of the hole, just regular brown grass snakes. I’d cut the skin off, scraped the poop part of them, and just swallowed the rest. The blood carries a lot of nutrients.”
As for water, Jason said that early news reports had it wrong — he refused to drink the sewage.
“The news said I drank the poop water, but I never drank that poop water,” he said. “That would’ve killed me. I think I stayed hydrated from being down in that water and my body soaking it up.
Sometimes I felt kind of like Rambo, or someone doing some kind of mission for the military, where you can’t carry rations or nothing with you. Living off the land, you know.”
Another fact Jason wanted to clarify is how long he had been trapped in the manhole. Some news reports stated that he was down there nine days, and others reported less. Jason’s sister Kelsey Cofer said her brother wasn’t sure how long had it had been when he finally got out of the hole, but nine days is probably correct judging from the text messages Jason had sent his dad, who he lives with, before he fell.
“The last text message he sent was from Friday, October 6 at 4:44 in the afternoon, saying he was on the way home,” Kelsey said. “He told us when he got out that 10 or 15 minutes after he sent that message he fell in the hole.”
Jason said he passed the time eating what he could and praying to God.
“I had my pocket knife with me and I was considering committing suicide, but I wanted to live,” he said.
Late on Sunday night, Jason heard construction crews working on the road nearby. The loud machine they were using drowned out his screams for help, but he said he prayed that God would turn the machine off.
“I prayed ‘God, I know this may not be right but can you please zap that machine and make it turn off so these guys can hear me?’ And the instant I said that it locked up and stopped. Then I started screaming hollering and whistling. When I saw someone look down with a flashlight, I started crying big time — thank you Jesus, thank you Jesus.”
The workers tossed down some bottled water and some homemade chips with lime, Jason said, and thirty minutes later firefighters had shown up to rescue him.
Now that he’s out of the manhole and in a hospital bed, Jason said the experience feels surreal, like a nightmare.
“This whole thing blows my mind and amazes me,” he said. “Nine days in a sewer hole, being covered with sewage. My life is not going to be the same. But everything happens for a reason, and me getting out of that pit is a testimony that there is a god. I’ve lived in poverty all my life, and now I’m about to sue the city and the state and buy me a piece of land somewhere. Maybe invest in some housing and start a real true homeless shelter for people. I definitely already have a case; an attorney has already drawn up papers and stuff. I’m going to sue and I’m going to win.”