Dan Miller relied on pact to his wife to survive while trapped under excavator in dam near Port Stephens

Firefighters work to free Dan Miller from the dam at his property in Charlotte Bay. Photo: Facebook/Saimaa Miller The moment Dan Miller was pulled from the dam.
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Dan and Saimaa Miller at their home in Charlotte Bay. Photo: Scott Calvin

When Dan Miller found himself trapped under an excavator in a dam, it was a pact he had made to his wife years earlier that made him fight for hours to keep his mouth and nose above water.

The 44-year-old builder was working on his property at Charlotte Bay, north of Port Stephens, last Tuesday, when the excavator he was driving began to slide. Before he knew it, it was heading for the water.

“I hit the water and was still on the machine but trying to get off. I pushed off and was underwater and I felt the roll bar come down just below by shoulder blades. I was completely submerged and I thought ‘shit, this is heavy’.”

Face down, Mr Miller slid up until the roll bar reached the small of his back in a position similar to a Cobra pose in yoga. He put his hands in the mud and tilted his head back to keep it clear from the water.

“That first, gasping breath is my clearest memory.”

Within 10 minutes the excavator had turned off, it was silent apart from the machine ticking away.

“I thought there’s no one coming for a long, long time. I stopped yelling almost straight away, it was pretty pointless, you’ve got to keep calm, there’s no point.

“I’ve done a lot of surfing, and when you’re in the water, no matter what happens you stay calm, you make good decisions. You panic you’re going to be swallowing water, diesel and hydraulic fluid you won’t last.”

When he tried to dig himself out he sunk further into the murky water. Water got into his ears, only his nose was above the waterline.

Mr Miller began playing through scenarios in his mind of what would happen if he succombed, realising it would most likely be his four-year-old daughter and her minder who would find him.

“They would bring her home and see the excavator in the dam.

“That gave me strength. I just thought ‘You can’t do that to a four-year-old, or my son,’ and I thought of the promise I made to my wife.

“Saimaa’s mother died when she was really young. When we got married we made a pact.

“It was humorous in that it was a horrible topic, but she made me promise I wouldn’t die first. When I hit the water that was the first thought in my mind.”

Mr Miller was stuck in the dam for five hours – he was rescued when a neighbour heard his well-timed cries for help.

“At three [I knew] my neighbour Mel would be home – I needed to give 10 minutes of energy. It was extreme and excruciating and I pushed my body up and didn’t worry about the pain in my back. I just yelled and yelled and yelled. I had to go down and suck in breaths through my nose and just keep yelling ‘help, help, help’.”

When his neighbour’s car came up the driveway, he gave it “one last burst” and was finally discovered.

“She was amazing, she just got on the phone and just bang, bang, bang. Then came more neighbours, then police, then the fire brigade – legends who saved me.”

Mr Miller’s wife, Saimaa, only found out about the ordeal when she finished work at her day spa in North Bondi and saw two missed calls from her neighbours.

​”Funnily enough I had the exact same thought that he did, he couldn’t die, because he promised me. Then [my neighbour said] ‘I can just see his head’.” ​

Great Lakes Advocate