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Buried Alive: Family credits God for Modesto teens' survival

One second he was standing at the bottom of a 15-foot-deep trench at the edge of the family almond orchard west of Modesto, watching his cousin working the backhoe 30 feet away. The next second something went very wrong.

For the next 22 minutes on Nov. 12, though, a lot of things went very right, and Kyle Oosterkamp was pulled out from under a half-ton of dirt alive after the trench he was standing in collapsed.

By the end of the day, the 6-foot-4-inch teenager was eating double helpings of hamburgers and fries in his hospital room. The room at Memorial Medical Center overflowed with well-wishers -- his dad counted 36 at 8 p.m. when visiting hours ended.

"It's just by the grace of God," his mother, Tammy Oosterkamp said Sunday. "So many people have told us -- the ambulance drivers, the helicopter, firefighters. People just don't survive something like this."

Oosterkamp's father, Bruce, a former volunteer firefighter, heard of the accident when his home address came over the emergency scanner while he was in Modesto. He called his wife and just told her to direct the emergency vehicles to the back orchard.

"I had no idea. He spared me a lot of trauma. I'm so glad. I would've been just a crazy woman," Tammy Oosterkamp said.

The family farm where the cave-in took place is about 10 miles west of Modesto on Shoemake Avenue in the close-knit Wood Colony community.

Neighbors arrived in less than two minutes and volunteers from Woodland and Salida fire departments poured in shortly after.

Among the Woodland volunteers was cousin Matt Oosterkamp, brother of the backhoe driver, Mark, who had jumped in and started digging in the sandy soil with his bare hands. Matt Oosterkamp also dived in, "digging like a mad man" from the moment he arrived eight minutes in, until he yanked his 19-year-old cousin out of the ground 22 minutes after the cave-in.

Bruce Oosterkamp described his son's face as he was pulled out as "dark blue, purple, black. He looked dead."

"My nephew just threw him up that hill. They got him on that gurney and got that breathing tube down him," Bruce Oosterkamp said. "Within two minutes he was breathing and then he woke up and by the time they got him on the helicopter he was talking and joking."

40 people involved in rescue

The Oosterkamps figure about 40 people worked to free their son from the pit in a narrow strip lying between almond and walnut orchards and, luckily, a tiny pasture just large enough for the helicopter to land.

"Most of the people who responded knew him," Bruce Oosterkamp said. "After the helicopter left they just lost it. Men were crying. All that adrenaline just backed up on them."

Adrenaline powered Mark Oosterkamp as he watched his cousin be buried alive in the trench he had just dug to bury brush. "Everything's fine. Then in a second you're totally having a heart attack," he recalled. "That's just what it felt like."

The worker standing just a foot or two from Kyle Oosterkamp was hit by the first wall's collapse but leapt from the 15-foot pit as if lifted by a guardian angel, Mark Oosterkamp said. "He said it felt like God pulled him out. It looked like God pulled him out. There's no way he could have jumped that."

Down in the pit, Kyle Oosterkamp was directly under the collapse.

"The dirt came down from my right," Oosterkamp said at his home Sunday. He remembered bending straight over, looking down and protecting his face as the first load of dirt landed on him. "Then I felt two more impacts and by then I couldn't move at all."

He estimates he remained conscious about 15 minutes, feeling the earth move as rescuers dug for him, but unable to hear a thing. "I yelled at first, but then I thought I'd better slow my breathing down. It ain't gonna do any good. They can't hear me."

At the time he thought the man next to him had also been buried, leaving only his cousin to try to dig them both out.

"I thought that I was going to die. I thought of my parents and just prayed for God to comfort them after I'm gone. I had a buddy die at 17. I figured my parents would have to bury me the way his parents had to bury him," Oosterkamp said.

'God really was in control'

Instead, he lived to tell the tale. And tell it he has, starting with the dozens of visitors during his one-day hospital stay, continuing at the annual pancake breakfast the following weekend at the Woodland Avenue Fire District. His brothers, Brandon, 21, and Cody, 15, have heard it, as has sister Stephanie, 23.

Tammy Oosterkamp said her son, a 2008 Ripon Christian graduate and Modesto Junior College student, had some dirt in his lungs and a very sore back, but otherwise emerged unscathed.

"He hasn't even had nightmares. His cousin's had them, but not Kyle," she said. She knows "God really was in control of this. He saved Kyle for a reason."

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