By Elizabeth Chuck Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 10/13/2011 11:33:13 AM ET 2011-10-13T15:33:13

A 76-year-old woman is recovering in the hospital after a neighbor just six years her junior helped save her from a 20-foot-deep well.

May Elliott had decided to do a little yard work Wednesday afternoon when she accidentally stepped on a rotted well cover.

"I went down pretty hard," May Elliott told msnbc.com from her hospital room near Buffalo, N.Y. "I was shocked. I went straight down. I went underneath the water, and when I came back up, I was screaming. It's one of those crazy things you never expect to happen."

Next-door neighbor Ray Colpoys, 70, was in the yard of his Collins, N.Y., home Wednesday and ran over when he heard the commotion.

"I couldn't find her, but I heard her screaming, and I said, 'Where are you?' and she says, 'I'm in the well,'" he told msnbc.com.

Colpoys rushed over to the three-foot-wide well in the bushes of Elliott's yard, which is functional, but not in use.

"All those years, I was always so careful with that well," said Elliott, who has lived in her home for 30 years. "I always kept kids away from it, kept people away from it when I had guests over."

The well, along with the house, was built in 1900, Elliott told msnbc.com. On Wednesday afternoon, she accidentally stepped on the wooden cover, which she had just replaced last year after noticing the well's old cement cover had deteriorated.

But heavy rains over the past year had apparently weakened the wood.

"It was rotted and she went right through," neighbor Colpoys said.

Caught on a pipe
Elliott plummeted down, stopping just short of the bottom when her foot got caught on a pipe. She was up to her neck in water.

"She got hooked on that standpipe; that’s what saved her life," Colpoys told msnbc.com.

Standpipes run alongside wells to prevent them from overfilling.

Colpoys tried to pull Elliott out, but couldn't. He held onto her for as long as he could, and then secured her on the standpipe while he ran across the street to get help.

"I got my neighbor, who's a volunteer fireman, figuring we could both get her out — but we couldn't," he said. They called in the fire department for help. Firefighters held onto Colpoys' belt as he went down the side of the well to unhook Elliott's foot while they lifted her out.

"All those firemen, they put ropes around me, they put their arms around me and dragged me out," Elliott said. On the brink of hypothermia, she was wrapped in blankets and taken to the hospital with a fractured femur bone.

Colpoys spoke with her on Thursday, as Elliott was prepping for surgery on her femur.

"She seemed in good sprits but she’s 76 years old, and she's got her dogs and her cats and she lives alone," he said. "She’s scared. When you think about what could have happened, it's really scary ... She's still in shock."

Colpoys and his wife Barbara plan to help Elliott once she gets home.

"We'll get her through it," Ray Colpoys told msnbc.com. "She lives in this humongous house — it's ten rooms — and this is a big fear. The worst thing that can happen to you is a hip injury or something like this, so the thing we're trying to do now is assure her."

He also said they plan on replacing the well's wood cover with a new metal one.

"Thank God that he was there," Elliott said of Colpoys, who has lived next to her for two years. "If he didn't hear me, I don't know if I would have ever gotten out of there."

The tiny town of Collins is in Erie County, in western New York.

"I just want to thank everybody; they went beyond," Elliott told msnbc.com "The fire department, of course, I love them anyway. They're just always there for you in our little town to help."

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