BASTROP COUNTY, Texas — The Bastrop County sheriff called it a “sad tragedy” while describing the lengthy recovery efforts it took to pull the bodies of three people and a dog from a hole in a cornfield Wednesday.

Sheriff Maurice Cook said a man from Red Rock led three people from Florida on a hog hunt and called deputies for help at about 1:02 a.m. Wednesday. The man reported three people trapped in a hole in the 300 block of New Trail, which is close to County Road 461 in northern Bastrop County.

The hole turned out to be a cistern that had standing water in it about six to eight feet below ground level. The sheriff said the hunting guide told deputies that a dog escaped from a truck and fell into the cistern. One man apparently jumped into the hole to save the dog, and another man and a woman removed some of their clothes and dove in later. The cistern had a high amount of hydrogen sulfide gas built up inside it, so Cook said that likely killed the three people and the dog.

“If the hydrogen sulfide wasn’t in there, we would have probably had a different outcome,” Cook said at a news conference Thursday morning.

BCSO identified the victims as Delvys Garcia, 37, Denise Martinez, 26, and Noel Vigil Benitez, 45.

BCSO identified the victims trapped in a hole in Bastrop County. From left to right: Denise Martinez, 26, and Noel Vigil Benitez, 45.
BCSO identified the victims trapped in a hole in Bastrop County. From left to right: Denise Martinez, 26, and Noel Vigil Benitez, 45. Photos provided by Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office

The bodies were taken to the medical examiner’s office by a local funeral home. The dog was also taken to the funeral home, BSCO said.

Cook said deputies are now looking into the hunting guide’s story further, adding there are no charges filed at this time.

The sheriff shared details about the hours-long process to safely remove the bodies from the cistern. He said the amount of hydrogen sulfide gas hampered the recovery efforts because dive crews would not go into the stagnated water. Eventually, crews pumped out the toxic water into tanker trucks and cleared the gas through ventilation. Deputies then flew a drone into the cistern to “see the integrity of the walls,” the sheriff explained.

Cook said one of his deputies volunteered to be lowered into the cistern and bring up the three people’s bodies and the dog. The deputy wore an oxygen mask and a suit during this effort, and the sheriff said it took about an hour for him to pull up everyone before crews eventually took the bodies to the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office.

What we know about Hydrogen Sulfide

Environmental Toxicologist Dr. Thomas Dydek said Hydrogen Sulfide is something you can’t see and sometimes can’t smell.

“When the levels get much higher, it can knock out your sense of smell,” Dydek said. “So you don’t even know it’s there from seeing it or smelling it.”

Dydek said the effects can happen very quickly.

“If the Hydrogen Sulfide levels are high enough, one or two breaths can knock you out,” Dydek said. “After that, death can be within five or 10 minutes.”

He said this toxic gas is the product of the decomposition of organic material.

“Perhaps, animals had fallen in previously. Their bodies would be decomposing,” Dydek said. “Another important feature of hydrogen sulfide is that it’s heavier than air. So once it’s in an enclosed space underground, it’s going to accumulate in that space.”

Dydek said the United State Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said between five and 10 people die every year in similar situations like this.

“Usually, it’s workers. It’s a little unusual for people going out hunting to suffer this fatality,” Dydek said. “But it does happen.”

What a cistern is

So what is a cistern? It is essentially a tank for storing water.

It’s mostly used domestically to catch rainwater or flush toilets.

But in more rural areas, they can be used to keep fields watered and have a place for animals to drink.

“Underground cisterns were very common over 100 years,” said Ron Van Sickle, CEO and Founder of Secure Water. “People were familiar with the techniques of building tanks underground, and it was suitable for the construction materials at the time, which it would have been brick and Earth products.”

What a nearby neighbor saw

Andrew Prinz lives in Elgin on County Road 461 near where law enforcement said three people fell into a cistern and died.

“I heard the helicopter flying around and cops and fire department and whatnot started showing up,” Prinz said as he recalled Tuesday night.

Prinz said Tuesday night he saw flashlights on in the field so he went to check it out.

“Got my spotlight, and I shined it on to see if they’re trespassing obviously. And their light immediately turned off and I couldn’t find them anymore with my spotlight,” Prinz said. “I drove up and around on the new trail, and I saw the hunting truck with the dog cages and stuff on the back. So I just assumed maybe it was just some kids that were out hunting. So I came on back to the house.”

Not too long after that, Prinz said he heard law enforcement arrive.

“I went up there to see what was going on pretty much and they said that they assumed that they were hunting hogs and followed their dogs and fell into a cistern, which are quite deep and that one’s probably filled with mud and sludge in there,” Prinz said.

He said nothing like this had ever happened in the area and the news left him shocked.

“I never even knew there was one over there. Honestly, I’ve been hunting all through here,” Prinz said. “That just could have easily been us too.”