Mahoning man hides in culvert for 2 days

By Mike Sever and Deanna Hohler Bottar Record-Cour Published:

Robert Vasko's skin was white, his muscles were weak and his body was wet when rescue workers arrived to lift him out of a 13-feet-deep Ohio Turnpike drainage culvert in Shalersville Monday where he had spent nearly two days. The 48-year-old Austintown man remained hospitalized in satisfactory condition at St. Elizabeth Health Center in Youngstown this morning after being soaked in icy slush and runoff waters from the turnpike during frigid weather. Vasko was rescued about 3 p.m. Monday from a drainage pit under a new concrete median strip on the turnpike by the Ohio Highway Patrol, Garrettsville-Nelson-Freedom and Mantua-Shalersville fire departments, and workers from a service plaza located east of Limeridge Road. He was transported by ambulance to St. Elizabeth from Robinson Memorial Hospital in Ravenna for medical treatment. According to OHP Sgt. Don Ebie, Vasko's car broke down about 5 p.m. Saturday while Vasko was traveling westbound on the turnpike. He was picked up by a turnpike maintenance worker and brought to the service plaza to arrange to get his car fixed. When Vasko arrived at the service station, he reportedly bolted into nearby woods. The highway patrol searched the area but was unable to find him Saturday. "His family called and wanted to know about it, and that's what we knew about it," Ebie said. Vasko's family said he is paranoid of police officers and might have entered the culvert to avoid having contact with a trooper. "If any conversation (during his ride to the service plaza) was that while he was broken down, the troopers would be called to help, that might have set him off," said OHP Sgt. Walt Bradley. Benny Pazquez of Ravenna, who works at the plaza, said Vasko's sister and an unidentified man came to the plaza Monday searching for Vasko. "My boss told me to go ahead and help them look for him, so after work we were checking all the ditch holes where (the patrol) said he disappeared." Pazquez said. The sister was calling for Vasko when she heard him moan or call from the culvert, Pazquez said. The 5-feet-8-inch, 250-pound man had apparently crawled into a 24-inch-wide horizontal culvert and traveled 123 feet into the drainage system to where it connected into a long vertical manhole or drainage shaft, according to Ebie and Bradley. "He was down in a manhole in the middle of the turnpike, underneath that new concrete divider they put in," said Garrettsville Fire Chief Don Harris Jr. "He had a winter-like blue coat on, but everything was soaking wet because there was water running through the hole." The grate covering the square manhole was too heavy for rescue workers to move, so a snow plow was used to gain access to where Vasko was. Three rescue workers then entered the culvert, which connects several pipes and handles runoff waters from the turnpike and nearby ditches, Harris said. "The hole was about 14 feet deep," Harris added. "He didn't have any power left because he had been in there for a while. He was standing down in the bottom." The rescue workers secured Vasko, who was conscious, in a basket and used a tripod from the Mantua-Shalersville fire department to lift him straight up out of the hole. "He was so white. His tongue was like a solid white color. I was surprised he didn't have frostbite," Pazquez said. "The only thing he had on was his thermal underwear. So I gave him my coat and my gloves." The patrol cleared the area to allow firefighters and medical personnel to make the rescue. The OHP is waiting for Vasko's physical condition to improve before questioning him about entering the culvert and remaining there. "We don't know why he was in the position he was in," Sgt. Ebie said. "Obviously, the medical people had more need to get to him than we did. So we're waiting."

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