Building Collapse Traps Workers In Concrete

Editor's note: Fred Broccolo, a 15-year veteran of the fire service, is a firefighter assigned to Squad Company 1 of the City of Norfolk, VA, Department of Fire & Paramedical Services and is a rescue specialist with FEMA Urban Search & Rescue Virginia Task Force 2. His first-person account describes a rescue operation that presented unusual challenges and hazards to emergency responders.

We started our shift on July, 18, 1995, at Norfolk's Squad Company 1 at 7 A.M. Other members of my crew included Captain Loy Senter and Firefighters Bruce Evans and Cliff Poplin, who is assigned to Engine Company 2 but regularly fills in at our station.

Our department operates 14 engine companies, seven ladder companies, two heavy squads, three battalions, one hazmat response unit and 11 advanced life support (ALS) ambulances. The 55-member department covers a 65-square-mile area with a population of 261,000.

Photo by Bill Tiernan/Virginia Pilot & Ledger Star
Squad Company 1 Firefighter Bruce Evans, a paramedic, attends to the second victim of the collapse while being lowered to the ground.

It was a hot and humid Tidewater day, with temperatures in the mid- 90s. Senter, being part of the apparatus committee, had scheduled us to attend a training session about a new tower ladder. We arrived at the headquarters station shortly before 8 A.M. and began to inspect the new truck when we heard a large noise coming from downtown. I said it sounded like a collapse. Suddenly, a man ran up to us and reported a collapse at the city jail expansion site. With that we responded in our unit.

Senter notified radio dispatch that we were responding to a possible building collapse and requested a full structural response. Because the jail is in view of headquarters, the response took only a few seconds. Upon arrival, we saw that a crew had been pouring concrete onto the third floor of the expansion. The forms had collapsed into the second floor, from the sides to the middle. We got off the truck and started a size-up.

Senter assumed command and requested a second alarm and two additional rescue units. He then instructed Poplin and me to go to a vantage point so we could see what we had and estimate victim numbers and the need for additional equipment. Evans started to assemble the equipment we would probably need.

Poplin and I made our way up extension ladders to the undamaged side of the second floor. There I met the site foreman, who said some men were trapped in liquid concrete and rebar. I asked him whether anyone could be under the collapse site. He said he didn't think so, but he would take a head count and get back to me. I also asked about the integrity of the second floor. He said it was poured more than two weeks earlier and was in good shape. By looking at the remaining floors and the framework around the third floor, I felt confident that a second collapse was not likely. We climbed a wooden make-shift ladder to the top of the framework. From there we could see about a dozen men, some appearing to be trapped in the concrete.

Photo by Mike Carden/Tidewater Fire Photographers Association
Firefighters found three workers trapped in liquid concrete and rebar.

Our only way into the collapse area was by making our way over the web of rebar that was still attached at the sides toward the liquid concrete at the center it was like trying to walk a tightrope without a net. It was determined that three men were trapped, and I made a report to Senter on my portable radio. He assigned me as Extrication Sector and asked whether the Regional Technical Rescue Team was needed. I replied that I thought we had enough resources to handle the incident.

I requested that an "O" cutter with portable power plant be sent up, along with the oxyacetylene torch for cutting rebar. At about this time, the rest of the first-alarm companies began arriving. Battalion 1 Chief Bill Syrax assumed command and Senter came up to our location to assume Extrication Sector. Poplin and I, along with members of Engine Company 6, were assessing the trapped men for injuries. Rescue 1 and Rescue 6 brought medical equipment up to the collapse and started staging for the patients they eventually would receive. Because most of the collapse area was liquid concrete, four-foot-by-eight-foot sheets of plywood were used to make a clean platform on which to package the victims.

Once the cutting was underway, the operation began to move smoothly. An oxyacetylene torch that was on site was used initially for cutting until our equipment was moved up top. We also used our "O" cutters, since there was a lot of rebar to cut. Not knowing whether the concrete would keep the rebar too cool to cut, I thought having a second type of cutting device would be a good idea. As we dug, we uncovered cross sections of rebar tied to other sections, all of which had to be cut.

The biggest problem we faced was clearing away enough concrete from the trapped men's legs in order to cut the rebar. Most of the digging was done with entrenching shovels. When we were close to their legs, we had to dig by hand. The victims all were thought to have multiple fractures of both legs, so they were to be trauma alerted. The emergency room physicians gave standing orders for morphine to be administered if any of the victims had severe pain. Between Syrax and Senter a decision was made to use Ladder 8 to lift the patients out via stokes basket. A crane was on site, but its operator was not certified to move people.

Photo by Bill Tiernan/Virginia Pilot & Ledger Star
Aerial view shows Ladder 8's crew positioning the ladder for removal of the victims.

After discussions between our command staff and local Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) representatives, the decision was made to use the crane time was a factor, due to the extent of the workers' injuries. Once our equipment was in place, the freeing of the victims only took about 40 minutes. All of them were free by about 9:30 A.M.

The removal of the victims to ground transport was more time consuming. Because the area from which they were being removed was down inside of the collapse, a raising system was needed. Packaging each victim and securing him in the stokes with an attendant took about 15 minutes. By the time we were ready to move the victims out of the collapse, Evans had joined our company on top. Because he is also a paramedic, it was decided that he would ride down with the victims he could tend to their medical needs and administer morphine if necessary. By 10:30 A.M., all of the victims had been removed to ambulances and on their way to our trauma center. (We later learned that two other workers had sustained minor injuries. One had made it down on his own and the other sat nearby, saying nothing he thought we had enough to deal with, and that he could wait.) The report later from the emergency room was that none of the patients had major injuries and all were released that day or the next.

In talks with construction company representatives afterward, we learned that during normal operations of this phase of construction, personnel would be underneath the floor being poured to watch the framework for problems. In this case, problems resulted that delayed the pouring of the third floor, giving the second floor two weeks to cure. This resulted in a more sound structure and prevented a pancake collapse.

The Virginia Department of Labor & Industry concluded that the concrete subcontractor had violated construction methods for scaffolding used to support the weight of cast-in-place concrete without failing. The citation stated that the scaffolding had not been erected according to the recommendations and specifications of the manufacturer or as recommended by the Scaffolding and Shoring Institute. "J" or "U" heads were used in lieu of the recommended base plates and in turn were resting on unbraced doubled two-inch-by-10-inch-by-22-foot runners set edgewise on doubled two-inch-by-four-inch-by-26-inch (flat) wood buildups instead of on four-, six- or eight-inch solid lumber or timbers. Hence, the framework was not designed to prevent rotation. The subcontractor was issued a "serious" violation and fined $3,000.

Lessons Learned

The City of Norfolk, being home to the largest naval base in the world, has many shipyards. As a result, we respond to many calls to rescue injured people from the holds or tanks of ships. Those people usually must be removed by intricate haul systems. In moving victims from ships to the ground, we usually use shipyard cranes because they can cover a large area and are suited for moving people and equipment quickly. Those cranes and their operators are OSHA certified to move people but in the jail collapse, the crane and its operator were not. That taught us to be prepared to move such victims by other means; i.e., tower ladder, aerial ladders and rope lowering systems.