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Excavator driver saved Steinbach dam: "If the wall had broken, I would not have stood a chance"

Excavator driver saved Steinbach dam : "If the wall had broken, I would not have stood a chance"

Contractor Hubert Schilles used his 30-ton excavator to unblock the blocked main drain at the Steinbach Dam. A delicate mission (in) on which he willingly put his life on the line. In an interview, he tells of his dramatic mission.

Hubert Schilles is something of a man of the hour, even if he doesn't like to hear it. Nevertheless, the name of the 67-year-old contractor from Mechernich inevitably comes up whenever there is talk of the longed for all-clear at the crumbling Steinbach Dam.

"I was born in Mechernich, this is my home. You know every corner, every tree, every bush. When people ask me for help and I can help, there's a crystal-clear yes from me," Schilles clarifies. "Everyone needs help at some point. And if someone asks, I'm there wherever I'm called." In this case, it was the Steinbach Dam.

A risky plan

Yet the request for the help he was asked to provide was anything but a piece of cake. As a result of the storm disaster in the region, the level in the catchment basin of the Steinbach Dam had risen to the maximum. Several thousand liters of water had sloshed over the edge of the dam every second, tearing meter-deep craters in the earth wall in front of it. The dam crest was damaged, the dam wall cracked. At any moment, the protective wall threatened to give way because of the immense water pressure.

"I found out about the situation on site in a telephone conversation with my brother," says Schilles, who runs a local civil engineering company with his brother Peter. "There was talk that a large piece of equipment, a 30-ton excavator, was needed there, so I went." Arriving at the Steinbach Dam, Schilles descended the slope on foot to the bottom of the dam wall and learned about the daring maneuver needed. Some 18 meters below the dam crest, the clogged main outlet was to be shoveled free. It was a mission in which life and limb were at stake. "If the wall had broken, I wouldn't have had a chance. None of the people in charge could take the risk, so I took it myself," Schilles says soberly. "At that moment, it was clear that we were running out of time, so we ran to get everything in place." Forty-five minutes later, his excavator was there. "And then I drove in there to the main drain."

Teamwork brings success

Schilles moved his heavy construction machine into position at a spray mark measuring about six by five meters. Below that should be the drainage manhole. Schilles lowered the shovel. "More and more mud and debris was coming in. All of a sudden there was the concrete of the walls." He had hit the surround of the drain. Schilles uncovered the channel and retreated to safety. The hoped-for breakthrough failed to materialize, however, because the water discharge was still blocked by the closed gates in the channel.

In those anxious minutes, civil engineer Christian Lorenz stepped in. "Mr. Lorenz knows the dam inside and out. He got in there even though he only had a few centimeters of clearance to the water surface in the partially flooded canal. With another employee, he then succeeded in opening the slide gate. I take my hat off to these men. Afterwards, everyone had tears in their eyes.“

A humble rescuer

With his intervention, Schilles played a major role in defusing the critical situation at the Steinbach Dam. He probably saved more than 10,000 people directly affected by a possible dam break from even greater suffering. Schilles makes no secret of his selfless act; homage is far from his mind. "I'm overjoyed that I was able to take some of the fear away from people who might not have been able to run away." In addition, he said, he is a deep believer, having blessed himself before heading down to the dam with only his 50 years of professional experience in his luggage. "The Lord God will know what he's doing," Schilles says. "I think I was destined to be there that day. I'm glad I was able to help, that's all I want. Also, for example, I don’t want federal merit crosses or anything like that - I wouldn't accept that. I'm just an ordinary person, and I want to be seen as an ordinary person and remembered someday.“

Schilles still comes to Steinbach Dam every day. "I just can't do much without first making sure the work here is progressing well." The THW and fire department task forces at the dam make sure of that. Attentively, he watches the goings-on from the dam. "Helping hands are always needed, especially in the current situation all around. People who think and lend a hand," says the all-round dredger driver. "Only in my case, it's always better not to break anything when you're tackling it."

(Original text: Stephan Stegmann, Translation: Mareike Graepel)