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...


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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.

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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.

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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.

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