International Rescue: Buffalo Rescue 1 Teams with Canadian Firefighters to Save Worker Trapped on Ship

Aug. 19, 2004, started as a clear and mild day in Port Colborne, Ontario, a city on the south end of the Welland canal that links Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Marine Recycling Corp. workers were performing a scrapping operation on the 750-foot lake freighter Tarantu. The operation had left about 150 feet of the bow section of the ship remaining.

At approximately 10:20 A.M., 21-year-old Michael Kingston was performing cutting operations when a nine-foot-high pile of anchor chain weighing in excess of 50,000 pounds shifted, trapping him against the inside wall of the storage locker.

At 10:28 the Port Colborne Fire Department received the call for the man trapped in the ship at 3 Lake Road. Engine 1, Ladder 1 and Command 1 responded. Units were on location at 10:34 and found Kingston trapped in the chain locker with only his head visible. His body was surrounded by anchor chain; each link in the 300-foot-long chain weighed about 70 pounds.

Port Colborne Ladder 1 was used to access the ship, positioning its 100-foot aerial at an opening that had been cut into the ship at the second deck level where the victim was located. This opening had been made before to the incident. All personnel and equipment were moved across the water to the ship via the aerial ladder. Port Colborne fire crews, under the direction of Captain Bill Teal as incident commander, cleared the chain around the victim’s chest, pelvis and upper legs in a short time. The chain pinning Kingston’s lower right leg proved more difficult. Additional help was called in the form of Port Colborne volunteer firefighters and off-duty career members. Incident command was transferred to Chief of Department Tom Cartwright.

Paramedic crews from Niagara Regional Emergency Medical Services responded and after assessing the victim started IV lines to provide fluids and a route for pain medication. Blood was also brought to the scene; there was a fear of severe crushing injury that could lead to the victim bleeding to death upon being extricated. A medical helicopter from Toronto was also requested and responded.

Port Colborne crews on the ship, under the direction of Captain Sandy MacIntyre and Acting Captain Terry Czerlau, used a hydraulic combination tool as a spreader to hold the purchase space between the victim and the compartment bulkhead. Firefighters Joe Henry and Rick Smith used a come-along to secure one point of the chain to an overhead structural member. A crane was on hand and was used to tie off to the chain to try and secure it. Any attempt to move the chain from around the victim’s right leg resulted in great pain for Kingston. The chain was on top of the man’s right foot and between his lower and upper leg that was bent at the knee approximately 120 degrees. There was also chain on top of the man’s upper leg.

A decision was made to request a heavy rescue company to respond to the scene. Cartwright contacted the Toronto Fire Department and was told it would take about two hours for its Heavy Urban Search & Rescue Team (HUSAR) to respond. Cartwright then contacted the Buffalo, NY, Fire Department and was connected through the dispatch office with Deputy Commissioner Margaret Keane. A request for Buffalo’s heavy rescue company was approved immediately. Rescue Company 1 was contacted and told that a man was trapped in the hold of a ship by an anchor chain. Captain Mike Lombardo of Rescue 1 decided to also bring the hazmat unit that Rescue 1 operates due to the possible need of air monitoring, communications systems and other equipment carried aboard. Rescue 1 and the hazmat vehicle arrived at the scene arriving in approximately 35 minutes. The Buffalo Fire Department Safety Battalion Chief also responded. The Niagara Regional Police met the Buffalo units at the Peace Bridge and provided an escort to the incident.

Upon arrival, Lombardo conferred with the incident commander to ascertain the needs of the units operating on the ship, and was told to confer with MacIntyre aboard the ship. Lombardo and Firefighter James Luthringer ascended the aerial to the ship. Firefighters John Relosky, Gary Schurr and Thomas Smolarek of Rescue 1 started to assemble equipment that might be needed for the operation. On deck, it was found that the victim was in stable condition, but his right leg was stilled trapped by the chain. The chain was tied off, but still in a pile over five feet high about a foot away from the victim.

Prior to any decisions being made, a request from the police was made to Lombardo concerning opening the Welland canal to ship traffic. This request was denied, due to concerns that the wake of a passing ship could cause the chain pile to shift. The canal had been ordered closed earlier by Cartwright.

A discussion between Port Colborne and Buffalo personnel resulted in a multi-pronged plan being formulated. First, the pile of chain was made as stable as possible. This was done with a number of chain falls and rigging equipment. Anchor points were difficult to obtain due to the ship being scrapped. A number of overhead structural members had been cut, compromising their integrity. One aid in stabilizing the chain pile was to slide five-foot pinch bars into the pile to make it a more “solid” mass.

The second part of the plan involved cutting an opening in the sidewall of the compartment that the victim was in to access his leg from another direction. This was done with a torch and proved beneficial in the final removal of the victim. During the cutting operation, a 1¾-inch hoseline was brought up on the deck and used to keep the victim, who was covered, safe from embers and slag. The third part of the plan involved using torches to cut chain away from the pile at the opposite end away from the victim. This was approximately 10 feet from the victim. This part of our plan was a fallback in case we were not successful. By cutting away the chain in manageable sections at the far end, rescuers could eventually be able to simple-lift the chain off the victim when they got it down to a light enough section.

Schurr had come up on the ship and created more of a safety buffer between the chain and the victim using airbags. Any type of movement of the chain would cause movement in another area of the pile, but also caused pain to our victim and he would scream out. Relosky and Smolarek brought the tremendous amount of equipment used on board to the deck with help from members of the Port Colborne Fire Department. This required the firefighters to go across the aerial carrying the heavy loads, an extremely arduous, difficult and somewhat dangerous job.

After cutting the opening in the wall of the compartment, access to the front and back of the victim’s leg was gained. It could now be seen that the man’s foot was turned out and there was chain above and below his lower leg. This was why he suffered extreme pain when the pile moved or any attempt was made to move him. With our window cut into the wall, rescuers could move the chain on the inside of his leg. They were then able to move the upper pile of chain a few inches. At that point, the victim’s boot was cut off and his leg was free. The victim was lifted out of the compartment onto a backboard and was further assessed and treated by the paramedics. There was still a fear of severe hemorrhage and shock due to the injury and the length of his entrapment. The time of his removal was approximately 3:40 P.M., five hours after the accident occurred.

The last step in the operation was to move the victim from the ship to the awaiting helicopter on shore. Due to the angle and extension of the aerial ladder, rescuers did not want to use multiple personnel to bring him down. Therefore, a rope was attached to each end of a stokes basket and was guided down the ladder by Luthringer with personnel from both departments providing manpower on the rope to move the victim. The victim was then transported to Hamilton General Hospital by helicopter. His injuries consisted of a broken lower leg, two bones in his foot broken and bruised ribs. He was expected to make a full recovery.

This rescue operation highlights the success of a mutual aid operation, not between neighboring municipalities but between neighboring countries. The cooperation of all emergency service personnel combined to save a life and extricate a man from a difficult circumstance.

This was not the first response by the Buffalo Fire Department to Port Colborne. Directly across the canal from this incident stood Maple Leaf Milling, a large grain-milling complex. On Oct. 7, 1960, almost 44 years earlier, a devastating fire that threatened the downtown area of Port Colborne hit that mill. The Buffalo Fire Department sent its fireboat, Edward Cotter, to Port Colborne to help extinguish the fire.


Mike Lombardo is a 25-year veteran of the fire service and captain of the Buffalo, NY, Fire Department’s Rescue Company 1. Lombardo is a speaker and instructor on fireground tactics throughout the United States. He was the recipient of Firehouse® Magazine heroism awards in 1988 and 1993.

Loading