On a sunny Saturday in June, Alyson Machigua, three, squealed with laughter as she and her mother, Marlen, played tag in the front yard of their Hackettstown, New Jersey, home. With Marlen close behind, tiny Alyson darted into the backyard of an elderly neighbor. About halfway across the yard, Alyson suddenly disappeared, seemingly swallowed whole by a barely visible opening in the ground. Marlen screamed.
The neighbor’s caretaker, Luz Jimenez, 26, was preparing dinner in the neighbor’s kitchen and assumed the shrieks were the sounds of children playing. But she ran outside anyway and found Marlen sobbing and Alyson’s sister Damary, 25, kneeling on the grass, dialing 911.
“Alyson fell in the hole!” Damary cried to Luz. Luz peered down the hole in disbelief and saw only darkness. Then she heard Alyson’s wails from deep underground.
Luz ran inside the house and down to the basement for a ladder. She settled for a gray extension cord to use as a rope with which to rappel into the hole. Back in the yard, she and Damary used their hands to dig at the hole, widening the opening from seven inches in diameter to about 20 inches. Marlen sat on the grass, too distraught to help. When Hackettstown Police detective Aaron Perkins arrived a few minutes later, Luz was in the hole up to her waist.
“Get out of there,” the officer told Luz, hoisting her up by the arms. “It’s dangerous for you.”
“It’s more dangerous for the baby,” she countered. “She’s going to die.”
The detective implored Luz to wait for help, but she was determined. “I’ve got to do this,” she told him.
While Detective Perkins braced one end of the extension cord, Luz lowered herself, arm over arm, about halfway down the 15-foot-deep, rock-lined hole. Her foot located a metal tube that jutted out from the wall of the hole, and she perched on it for a moment. Below, she saw water covering the floor of a four-foot-wide cavern; Alyson was submerged up to her neck. Luz dropped the remaining few feet into the water beside the toddler, then scooped her up.
“Everything is going to be fine,” she told the soaked and shivering little girl. “Don’t worry.”
As they waited for help in two feet of dark water, Luz prayed that there were no snakes swimming at her feet. Since her childhood in Ecuador, she feared nothing more than snakes. Aboveground, Detective Perkins talked to Luz, keeping her calm until help arrived.
Just minutes later, the Hackettstown Fire Department and Hackettstown Rescue Squad arrived and lowered a ladder into the hole. Luz climbed up with Alyson in her arms, then handed her over. Emergency workers rushed the stunned toddler to an ambulance, tearing off her clothes to survey the damage. Alyson was scared and covered in dirt but, amazingly, uninjured. “How can she come up without one scratch?” Alyson’s other sister, Rosaura, 18, marveled.
The Machiguas later learned that the cement covering an old septic tank had been pushed down by tree roots, leaving the ground above it vulnerable. A few weeks after the incident, the family had the hole filled with dirt and rocks. Recently, when Rosaura took Alyson for a walk on the newly solid ground, the little girl hesitated at first but slowly grew more confident.
“[Luz] didn’t care about the risk of going into the hole,” Damary says. “She just jumped.”
Says Luz matter-of-factly about the toddler in peril, “I was trying to save her life.”