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Elderly Va. woman trapped by mower digs self out

Monday - 8/13/2012, 12:43pm  ET

Bristol Herald Courier

ABINGDON, Va. - For Martha W. Mitchell, mowing the lawn on a Saturday afternoon was nothing out of the ordinary. It's rained so much in the past few weeks, she said, it has been a fairly regular chore.

Mitchell, 81, would steer her red lawn mower around and around her yard, and then drive up a small slope by a building at the edge of the lawn.

It was there, on July 28, that the trouble started.

Mitchell, who lives alone on her family's homestead about a half-mile off North Fork River Road and several hundred yards from the closest neighbor, was pinned under her lawnmower for about five hours. She dug herself out with a tool made from an old bucket handle, and dragged herself to the house, where she stayed for two days before calling an ambulance service to come get her and take her to the hospital.

Today, after a week spent at home, Mitchell thanks God for bringing her through her brush with death.

On this particularly Saturday, however, Mitchell was just about to quit mowing when she decided to address a little patch of grass by that building, which is slightly up a slope from the rest of the yard. It was about 12:30 p.m., she said.

"I went up through there and then the motor started racing," she said. "I cut the switch off and it still wouldn't stop, even after I cut the switch off."

Not yet panicking, Mitchell put the mower in reverse and started to back away from the slope, but the brakes had quit, she said.

The large, red riding lawnmower wobbled unsteadily then tipped over, toppling the octogenarian and pinning her underneath it. Mitchell estimates the machine weighs several hundred pounds.

Her left foot and leg were caught beneath the heavy mower, and Mitchell was unable to lift the machine. Her head was stuck lying near some debris, and she was on her side, unable to gain enough leverage to wriggle out.

"I thought I was totally trapped," she said. "I have (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and I couldn't holler and I started to pray. I said, `Lord, give me a strong voice to holler for the neighbors,' and I did holler. But after about an hour, a voice spoke to me and said, `Nobody's gonna come, Martha.'"

She was afraid she'd die there, with no one to hear her cries for help, burnt to a crisp after the lawnmower exploded. She thought she heard gasoline dripping from the tank, which she had recently filled, and could smell smoke.

"I said, well, it's an awful long way for the Lord to come down and help me," Mitchell said. "If I've ever prayed, I prayed then."

Her face was in the sun, she said, and, fearing she'd get sunburned, she prayed for a cloud. One appeared almost instantly, she said.

"Well, boy, I got encouraged," she said.

She asked God for some rain, as her mouth was parched from yelling for so long.

"It started to pour rain, and that's the God's truth," she said.

She fashioned a saucer out of an old jug and was able to collect rainwater in it, Mitchell said.

She started to cast about for a way to free herself, having decided that no one was going to come to her aid.

"There was a 5-gallon bucket by my head. I started to try to tear it up, and saw the handle was metal," Mitchell said. "It's got an end like a claw. I got it out and bent it in half."

And she started digging.

"I started digging and digging a trench like a gully by my leg," she said. "I kept digging. I was there five hours."

She finally got the trench deep enough to push her pinned leg into it and wrest it out from under the mower.

"I don't know where I got the strength," she said. "When I got out, I crawled and dragged myself (to the house, about 20 yards away). My clothes were wringing wet."

Mitchell took a bath, dragged herself to bed, collapsed on it, and passed out. She stayed there for two days before the pain - turns out she broke two places in her hip on either side of her artificial hip, broke her pelvis and crushed her ankle - became too much to bear.

"It was two days of suffering, untold suffering," she said. "I was even about to drive myself. But finally . I called an ambulance."

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