After recent tractor accident, Clarkridge man had good people and faith in God on his side
This article is reprinted with permission from The Baxter Bulletin, Mountain Home, Arkansas.
Eldon Cooper doesn’t consider himself lucky to be alive. This despite being trapped inside the cab of a tractor upside down, submerged in a frigid pond on his Clarkridge, Arkansas, property for more than three hours on a cold February night.
Instead, the 19-year Army veteran credits his wife, rescue personnel, and most of all his faith in God for seeing him through the harrowing experience.
The 49-year-old man set out shortly after 5 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28, on his John Deere tractor to check on the dam containing the pond on his 25-acre property.
Just before he left, he called his new wife Debra and asked her to meet him at their church for the 6 p.m. service.
It had been raining recently and the top of the dam was muddy. It was something Cooper had dealt with before while operating the recently purchased tractor that has an enclosed cab.
“I had read the tractor’s manual. I knew it had an escape hatch,” Cooper said. “In the Army, they have you practice emergency procedures. I didn’t practice with the tractor.”
As Cooper began backing the tractor up on the road atop the dam, he got a little too close to the edge and felt the muddy earth start to give way and the tractor started sliding toward the water, then stopped.
“It was sitting there teetering. I put the bucket down because a lot of times that will stop it,” Cooper said. “I thought about my options. I could jump out and try to swim out of the way or I could yell out for help. But, as I thought about the options, it slipped down the hill and rolled over as it entered the water.”
Unfortunately for Cooper, the tractor ended up with the door to the cab pinned to the bottom of the pond, leaving him no escape.
An air pocket the size of a shoebox
As Cooper hung upside down, belted into his seat, the tractor quickly filled with frigid pond water. He released the seatbelt but was wedged into place due to the various control sticks in the cab. The water continued to rise.
“I thought I was going to drown,” Cooper said of what he was thinking as the water was rising. “Then the water just stopped.”
That was Cooper’s second piece of good fortune during the ordeal.
“I had to hold my head up to keep my mouth and nose out of the water,” said Cooper. “I knew I was in a pickle. The air pocket was about the size of a shoe box.”
That’s when Cooper said he started to panic. And as the panic set in, Cooper turned to his faith in God.
“I started to pray to God. I asked for God’s peace to come upon me,” Cooper said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I knew if I panicked, it was going to be over real quick.”
When he prayed, Cooper said, God answered.
“Immediately, I mean, that peace came over me that passes all understanding,” Cooper said. “When you write this story, I hope you emphasize God, because that’s what saw me through this.”
At that point, Cooper said his thinking cleared and his breathing calmed. He began to assess his situation.
He decided to try punching out the glass of the cab. He took off his belt and began smashing the pointed part of the prong against the glass. But with his arm mostly submerged, he couldn’t get a full swing.
“After a little while, I stopped,” said Cooper. “I just couldn’t get enough leverage and I was using up what little air I had.”
When he realized he wasn’t going to be able to break the glass, he had another conversation with God.
“I just surrendered to God. I prayed,” Cooper recounted. “I said, ‘God if this is the time, then this is the time. Please watch over my family.’ And I asked that he be glorified through this and that some good would come out of it.”
The next thing Cooper remembers was the noise of the flashers on the tractor coming on. That struck him as odd, considering that the tractor was upside down and mostly submerged in the water.
The flashers switch was underwater, and he hadn’t turned them on because the sun was still up when he headed out.
That’s the last conscious memory Cooper has of the night until he woke up in the hospital.
Cooper went into the water at about 5:20 p.m., he figures. He was supposed to meet his wife Debra at 6 at their church. He didn’t make it. That was his first piece of good fortune, not showing up where he was supposed to.
When Debra came home at 7:15 p.m., she found their dog on the porch and Cooper nowhere in sight. She grabbed a flashlight and began yelling out Cooper’s name as she searched for him.
When she got down to the pond, she saw the flashers blinking on the submerged tractor. But Cooper was nowhere to be seen.
Debra raced back up the hill to a location where she could get a cell phone signal and frantically dialed 911.
Cooper’s third piece of good fortune came in the form of veteran 911 dispatcher John Helms.
Debra, deeply upset, switched the numbers of their street address and the county road they live on. Helms was able to track the location of her cell phone and noticed it was not at the address Debra gave him.
Had Helms sent help to the address Debra gave, emergency responders would have headed to the Howard Cove area off Arkansas Highway 101 north instead of the Coopers’ home, which is approximately two miles north of the Pigeon Creek Bridge on Arkansas Highway 201 north.
Noticing the discrepancy, Helms ran Cooper’s driver’s license and noticed Debra had flipped the numbers around. Helms dispatched the right volunteer fire department, Clarkridge.
In addition, Lt. Rick Lucy and Sgt. Dwight Duch of the Baxter County Sheriff’s Office also headed to the scene. Cooper’s brother, Charlie Cooper, also raced to the house.
The first firefighter on the scene attached a chain to the tractor and his truck to prevent the tractor from moving any further.
Sgt. Lee Sanders, a BCSO diver, also was contacted and began heading toward the sheriff’s office to pick up his gear.
“I have a little bag at the house that I grabbed,” Sanders said. “I just started driving toward the office to get my dive gear.”
Meanwhile, rescuers at the scene believed they were there to recover Cooper’s body.
That’s when Cooper got another piece of good fortune in the form of Lt. Rick Lucy, a law enforcement officer with more than two decades of experience who’s been on too many manhunts and rescues to count.
As Lucy stood on the dam near the tractor, with fire truck engines idling and people talking loudly, he heard something.
The veteran deputy shouted for everyone to turn off the trucks and be quiet. That’s when Lucy knew for certain what he’d heard.
“All of a sudden, I heard the lieutenant (Lucy) talking real excited on the radio,” said Sanders. “That’s the first time I thought I might not be going to make a recovery.”
Sanders, who had been driving like he was heading toward a body recovery, now began driving like he was heading toward a rescue.
He raced into the the sheriff’s office, grabbed his gear and ran for a truck being driven by BCSO investigator Scott Thrasher.
As Thrasher drove with lights and sirens, Sanders began stripping down and changing into his dive gear.
“When it’s a rescue, now you’re talking a whole different ballgame,” Sanders said. “I had my feet stuck out the window at one point while I was changing. I just didn’t want to waste any time once I got on scene.”
Rescuers already on scene didn’t waste time either. Once they realized it was Cooper’s moans they were hearing, Clarkridge firefighters rushed into action along with Charlie Cooper.
The men got into the water and located Cooper inside the cab. They grabbed him, but they weren’t able to pull him free. They were only able to get his head and shoulders out of the water.
The rest of Cooper’s body was trapped inside the cab. While Cooper was no longer in danger of drowning, he was facing another threat: hypothermia.
The water temperature was in the 40s, and the air temperature was in the 50s. Cooper had been in the water for more than two hours.
Sanders arrived on scene and rushed down the hill to the pond. He hadn’t completely finished changing and had his semi-dry suit pulled up to his waist.
He saw Cooper being held up out of the water by the firefighters.
“As soon as I saw what was going on, I just tied the sleeves of the suit in a knot and got in the water,” Sanders said. “I just wasn’t going to waste any time.”
Sanders swam to the cab of the tractor and dove down to locate the rest of Cooper.
“I moved my hands over every inch of him to find out how he was trapped,” said Sanders. “I had to know what was in there and how he was up against things in order to know how to move him.”
Oddly enough, Sanders said, the best analogy of the situation comes from the world of video games.
“It was like a big game of Tetris. We had to move him in certain ways to get him out,” the diver said. “I would tell the firefighters to move him to the left, then stop. Pull him out a bit, then lift for a second.”
Slowly but surely, with Sanders guiding every move, they were able to free Cooper from the tractor. Sanders got Cooper to the bank of the pond, where rescuers began working him up the muddy bank of the dam to the road up top.
Once there, he was placed in a truck for the ride to the ambulance at the top of the hill. The ambulance rushed him to Baxter Regional Medical Center. When checked, his core temperature of 83 degrees told medical personnel Cooper still wasn’t out of danger.
However, with the hard work of the medical team, Cooper survived.
“God was looking out for me; he had a message for me,” Cooper said of his experience. “I’m listening to that message.”
Sanders noted it took a lot of things to fall into place for Cooper’s rescue to be a success.
“First, his wife had to miss him at church,” the officer said. “Then, you have to have a good dispatcher like John Helms to calmly get help to the right place.”
That wasn’t the end of Cooper’s fortune that night.
“That Clarkridge firefighter putting a chain on that tractor, that was crucial and he did it right away,” Sanders said. “Then you have Lt. Lucy and Sgt. Duch up there, and they hear Mr. Cooper. Up until then, we were thinking a recovery.”
Cooper spoke of God, crediting him with his rescue. Sanders spoke of all the emergency responders who did an outstanding job, crediting them with bringing about Cooper’s rescue.
Maybe, they’re both right.