Worker Falls Inside Water Tower

At 9:30 on a cold and windy morning in February 1996, the Farmingdale, NY, Fire Department received a call reporting that a worker was injured at the Farmingdale Water Tower.

What the responders didn't know until they arrived at the scene was that the victim was trapped inside the tower, which stands 150 feet high, is 80 feet in diameter and is topped by a ball tank that is 40 feet deep. This call would prove to be not only a high-angle rope rescue but also a confined space incident.

Photo by Harry Loud
The injured worker had fallen inside the tower, which stands 150 feet high, is 80 feet in diameter and is topped by a 40-foot-deep ball tank. Rescuers had to climb by scuttle ladder to the catwalk circling the ball.

Believing it was responding to a routine aided case, the volunteer department dispatched its Ambulance 929. Upon arrival, the crew was met by Farmingdale Captain Scott Lorenzen, who had been doing electrical work nearby. The ambulance crew then learned that the victim, who was working for a painting contractor, had been preparing the water tank for painting. The man was working inside the top of the drained water tank when he fell 40 feet and landed on the bottom floor inside the tank.

Firefighter/Paramedic Will Merrins, in charge at the time, was told by Lorenzen and other workers that the victim was trapped and injured up inside the 150-foot tower. Merrins, realizing this would take more manpower and equipment than the crew had available, transmitted a second alarm. He also made a special call for the nearby Bethpage Fire Department's Tactical Rescue Team (TRT).

Merrins and another firefighter started their ascent up the narrow, 113-foot scuttle ladder attached to one leg of the tower (this was the only means of access for rescue crews). After climbing down a workman's ladder inside the tank, Merrins reached the victim and began medical treatment of the man's injuries, which appeared to be a broken left arm, leg and ankle. Farmingdale Assistant Chief Don Tortoso soon arrived at the scene and was informed via radio by Merrins of the situation. Tortoso immediately established a command post and was then met by Bethpage Fire Department Assistant Chief Peter Bianco, a member of the TRT. Bianco requested that the Syosset Fire Department's rope team be called in for backup.

At 9:52 A.M., the Bethpage TRT arrived under the direction of team leader Gregory Patsos. The TRT response consists of units 9011, the team's specialized equipment truck; 9033, a heavy rescue truck; and 903, a 75-foot tower ladder.

The victim's location and particulars of his injuries were discussed while the rescuers established methods for a safe and effective rescue. Meanwhile, TRT members were assembling and doing safety checks on equipment that would be needed to begin the rescue effort. It was determined that Bianco would ascend the scuttle ladder with the first team to establish a topside command, Patsos would assume the position of rescue operations officer and Tortoso would be the incident commander.

Five rescue plans were established (it is department policy to establish multiple rescue plans in case the first plan is not feasible or fails):

  • Plan 1, in progress when the TRT arrived, called for a Nassau County Police Department helicopter to carry the patient out of the top of the tank. This plan was immediately discarded because of the high winds and because the down wash from the helicopter's blades would endanger the rescuers working at the top of the tower.
  • Plan 2 would have "special called" the local power company, Long Island Lighting Co., to send a 150-foot crane with a basket that could be raised to the tank to remove the victim. This plan also was discarded because the nearest crane was out of service and it would take hours for the next-closest unit to arrive.
  • Plan 3 called for lowering the victim through a three-foot-wide riser tube that ran from ground level up to the floor of the tank. This was ruled out because the tube's diameter wouldn't allow for a litter basket attendant to monitor the condition of the patient and to make equipment checks throughout the rescue. Also, the bottom opening would have had to be enlarged to get the patient out. The steel was one-half-inch thick and would have to be cut open to accommodate the victim.
  • Plan 4 was to set up a rope lowering system. Although all members are trained in performing this evolution, it remained as an option if plan 5 were to fail.
  • Plan 5 was to use the workers' scaffold, which was already in place. This was the plan used in the rescue. The scaffold measured 25 feet long by three feet wide and was mechanically operated. It would be able to carry the victim and a rescuer. The patient, once out of the tank, would have to be hauled 75 feet across the catwalk that encircled the perimeter of the tank to the scaffold, then lowered eight feet to the scaffold platform.

Photo by Harry Loud
Rescuers move the injured worker across the narrow catwalk to a scaffold. The operation was hindered by the cellular telephone antennas on the railing.

Four rescue teams were established, with all members wearing class 3 harnesses. Team 1 consisted of Bianco, Firefighter Gordon Bristol, Firefighter/EMT Steve D'angio, Firefighter/AMT Tim Mooney and Lieutenant Dale Schultz. Team 2 included Lieutenant Todd Smith, Lieutenant/EMT Vincent Brindisi, Lieutenant Tim Wodicka and Firefighter James Corleto of the Syosset Fire Department. The members of team 3 were Farmingdale Firefighters Greg Seti, Rich Wylie and Tom McKeon and Syosset Firefighter/AMT Rich Rosco and Firefighter Brian Johnson). Team 4 consisted of Nassau County Police Emergency Service Sergeant George Kessler and Officers Mark Tynan and Kevin Sullivan.

It was decided that team 1 would be sent up to the tank to survey the entire scene, set up anchor points for safety on the scuttle ladder for additional teams to ascend, determine whether the tank was oxygen-deficient, check and establish safe means of entry and egress from the tank, and determine the injuries and exact location of the patient in the tank. The remaining teams on the ground were to establish a tools and equipment staging area, rehabilitation area, medical staging area and media area. These teams then were to be staged in the rehab area, where it was warm.

The team 1 members reached the catwalk in six minutes. They proceeded with a structural stability inspection of the catwalk and railings, found to be in good shape. On the outside of the tank they came across a small hatchway door, measuring only 19 inches by 19 inches, leading to the inside of the tank at the catwalk level.

Meter readings were taken to determine whether any combustible gases and oxygen deficiencies were inside the tank. Readings for combustible gases proved negative and oxygen levels were within normal limits for operating without any respiratory protection. These readings were radioed down to command and recorded. Additional readings were made every 15 minutes until the last person exited the confined space. Once the members from team 1 entered the tank, they had to descend 20 feet to reach the patient. This was accomplished by utilizing the workman's ladder, which was already in place. Members entering the tank were also secured by retrieval lines for additional safety. When they reached the patient, his medical condition was reviewed and packaging for removal was started.

Photo by Harry Loud
The victim is raised over the railing of the catwalk before being lowered to the scaffold for the trip to the ground.

Now came the tough part moving the patient from the tank floor up to the hatchway door. Once a plan was agreed upon, the work would begin. The plan was to package the victim in the stokes basket and raise him to the hatchway door using a rope hauling system (a 3:1 vertical hauling system) that would have to be set up above the patient. Rescuers would have to ascend the outside of the tank to the top to set up the anchor points for this system. A second system (also a 3:1 vertical hauling system) would be assembled outside the hatchway door on the catwalk in order to haul the victim horizontally to the door and then across the catwalk to the scaffolding. Third, a safety system would be installed from the top of the outside of the tank down to the litter basket "spider" system, designed to join the rope to the basket and also to support and keep the basket level. This would be performed with a stationary figure-8 device for keeping tension and for lowering the basket once it reached the scaffold.

Team 2 was then sent up with equipment to perform these evolutions and to assist team 1 with manpower. Team 3 would ascend the tank, take up a position on the catwalk and set up a hauling system for the equipment that would have to be hauled up to the catwalk level. Team 4 would rotate up and down with the other teams due to the adverse weather conditions.

Once the patient reached the hatchway door, the safety line was secured to the spider. (This was done because when the patient was removed, the lower half of his body would have to hang over the railing in order to make the turn.) When this was completed, the second system was used to haul the patient over to the scaffold, with the safety line applying tension from above. This was not easy, due to the fact that encircling the tank on the catwalk were large cellular telephone antennas that were difficult to maneuver around.

The rescuers then raised the victim above the railing and down onto the scaffold. Mooney, already on the scaffold, secured the patient to the scaffold and accompanied him to the ground while monitoring his condition. On reaching the ground, the Farmingdale ambulance transported the victim to a nearby schoolyard, where a Nassau County Police helicopter was awaiting its arrival. The injured man was then flown to the nearby Nassau County Medical Center, where he was in stable condition. The entire rescue operation had lasted 2 1/2 hours.

This incident proved to the participants that no two rescues are the same and that accomplishing them takes teamwork and proper training.

Gregory Patsos is an ex-captain of the Bethpage, NY, Fire Department and team leader of its Tactical Response Team, instructing in confined space, collapse and trench rescue. Patsos also is an FDNY firefighter assigned to Engine Company 252 in Brooklyn.