Statewide Response To Worker Trapped In Collapsed Building

Mickey Conboy describes the harrowing experience shared by rescue workers as they worked 14 1/2 hours to free a man trapped in a building collapse.


It was a cold and damp afternoon on Wednesday, April 24, 1996, in Tonawanda, NY, north of Buffalo. Just after 4 P.M., Andrew Farber, an employee of a demolition company, was preparing to make the last cuts to bolts securing the structural steel columns on the first floor of the former foundry...


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It was a cold and damp afternoon on Wednesday, April 24, 1996, in Tonawanda, NY, north of Buffalo. Just after 4 P.M., Andrew Farber, an employee of a demolition company, was preparing to make the last cuts to bolts securing the structural steel columns on the first floor of the former foundry building of a General Motors plant when he heard a crack.

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Photo by Mickey Conboy
Chief officers discuss operations in front of the collapsed building. Photo shows the roof as it has collapsed onto its side.

Farber knew a major structural member had given way and ran toward the door that his demolition crew had just decided to use if anything went wrong. He ran about 30 feet before tripping over debris on the floor as other members of his crew made it safely out the door.

Farber, unable to get up in time, instinctively curled into the fetal position to protect himself from the building collapsing around him. A large OS&Y valve connected to a water pipe came to rest next to his head, creating a void in which he would spend the next 14 1/2 hours.

Town of Tonawanda paramedics and police along with an advanced life support (ALS) team from a private company arrived first. The foundry building measured 300 feet long by 100 feet wide and four stories high. The building was constructed with a steel frame and exterior walls of 1/8-inch sheet iron panels with loose styrofoam and fiberglass boards of insulation between the outside sheet iron and inside corrugated aluminum panels (similar to Q-decking). The floors were poured-in-place 12-inch reinforced concrete slabs.

The police asked the demolition company personnel whether they needed help extricating their worker but they declined assistance. More than an hour passed before the demolition personnel realized they did not have the expertise or training to free their co-worker. At 5:40 P.M., the demolition company requested assistance from the local fire department. Sheridan Park Volunteer Fire Company Squad 1 responded. Chief Kenneth Kohn arrived first and assumed the role of incident commander.

Kohn set up a command post at his vehicle to coordinate the prolonged operation that would involve various local, county and state agencies as well as many private companies for the use of their specialized tools and equipment. Assistant Chief William Trimper was designated operations officer inside the building where the victim was located. It was determined that more shoring might be needed and a private contractor was contacted for the material.

Additional assistance was requested from several fire departments from throughout Erie County. Before the rescue was completed, units would respond from Brighton, Eggertsville Hose Company, Elwood, Forks, Getzville, Grand Island, Kenilworth, Kenmore, Snyder, Williamsville, City of Buffalo, City of Tonawanda and New York City.

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Photo by Mickey Conboy
Scene of the interior area where the victim is trapped.

 


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Photo by Mickey Conboy
Rescuers clear remaining masonry debris to expose the area where the second access hole would be cut through several layers of metal.

 

The plan was to have some firefighters start an initial hole to gain access to Farber while other members were assigned to start a secondary hole to reach the victim. The members used shovels and pry bars as well as a hydraulic rescue tool, electric sawsall, air chisels and porto-power tools to cut their way through twisted metal and masonry debris.

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Photo by Mickey Conboy
A member of Buffalo Rescue Company 1 lies upside down to talk to the victim through the first access hole.
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