The floor suddenly gave way underneath 75-year-old Ernie Freeman and he found himself falling into a long forgotten well.
Freeman, along with other volunteers from the Northern Gila County Historical Society, was working in a shed next to the Rim Country Museum at Green Valley Park Monday when he unexpectedly disappeared.
"Ernie was just standing there," said Tom McGuigan, vice president of the NGCHS. "We started to move things in and Ernie just went down like a shot. All of a sudden -- zoom -- the floor gave way and he went straight down."
"It just felt like all of a sudden I'm in a dark hole," Freeman said. "I'm falling down, down, down and then I hit the water."
Instinctively flailing his arms, Freeman's fall came to an abrupt stop when he became snagged on some debris in the well shaft.
"When I stopped, I said, ‘Thank you, Lord.' I held onto the rocks on the sides."
Fellow volunteer Tony Visdas, 78, reacted quickly.
"I didn't have a rope," he said. "The only thing I could find right there was an old piece of telephone wire about 20 feet long."
Visdas threw one end of the wire down to Freeman who tied it around his waist. Wrapping the top end of the wire around his hand, Visdas held on tightly.
"There was no way I could pull him up, but I held pressure on the wire to keep him from falling more. I just held on tight -- I think I've got a permanent crease in my hand."
Visdas hollered to his wife, Diana, to call 911.
Emergency crews responded, including the Payson Fire Department's Technical Response Team (TRT), a specially trained unit prepared to use cables, pulleys and other rescue equipment.
"There was probably 30 feet of water down there," said Captain Rob Beery of the Payson Fire Department.
"I was a good 20 feet down," Freeman said. "My feet didn't touch the bottom. If the water had gone over my head, I would have been in big trouble."
Using a nearby tree to anchor a system of cables, TRT members, along with Payson police officers, were able to lift Freeman from the well.
"This building used to belong to the Forest Service," Beery said. "It was probably an old Forest Service well. No one knew it was here."
"I didn't even know that well was there," said Payson Public Works Director Buzz Walker. "You would think after all our presence out there -- building that park and moving stuff around -- I mean, we found two skeletons, but we never knew there was a well -- my lord."
Walker explained how a well from the early 1900s might be unaccounted for.
"There was no permit process and that's why there's no record of them," he said. "There were no regulations on well construction, and because they were all dug by hand, they are big enough for people to fall into."
Walker said property owners are responsible for securing unused wells. "It's a liability too, so you're actually protecting yourself. If they're not in use, fill them up with dirt so they are not a hazard," he said.
"We hope to get it filled up with dirt or sand," McGuigan said. "I'm surprised somebody would have used particleboard to build a floor over something like that. Fortunately, Ernie didn't get seriously hurt. He also didn't lose his sense of humor when he was down there -- he was joking with us," McGuigan said.
"I was sure grateful to Tony for throwing that line down to me," Freeman said. "I'm grateful to everybody who helped. It just felt so wonderful to be pulled out -- it was such a relief. I guess the Lord wasn't done with me."