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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After the members worked hard for two hours and made little progress, it became apparent that specialized equipment and expertise was needed. The call went out to the New York State Office of Fire Prevention and Control (OFPC) in Albany for assistance. A command post was set up to coordinate requests for assistance under the direction of Deputy State Fire Administrator Dan Caffery, Fire Services Bureau Chief John Mueller and Deputy Chief Tom Wutz. The western New York representative, Fire Protection Specialist Mark Mallick, was called to the scene to coordinate operations on site and offer assistance from state resources. Also dispatched to assist at the scene was Fire Protection Specialist Brian Rousseau from the state fire academy in Montour Falls. Mallick asked Captain Mike Lombardo of the Buffalo Fire Department, known for his experience in rescue operations, to respond with him.

Upon their arrival, they were briefed by Kohn and then surveyed the site of the collapse. The command post was moved to the demolition company's trailer to permit better communications by utilizing available telephones and fax machines as well as setting up radio communications with all agencies involved. A meeting was set up with representatives of the incident commander, General Motors, the Erie County Department of Emergency Services, the demolition company and OFPC. The parties agreed this was going to be a prolonged rescue operation. It was decided to activate the state mutual aid plan to have Buffalo Rescue Company 1 as well as other rescue companies from Erie County with special equipment and training to respond.

In addition, Battalion Chief Ray Downey, the FDNY's chief of Rescue Services, was contacted for assistance because of his experience in collapse rescue. It was also recommended to request assistance from New York City rescue company members experienced in collapse shoring in anticipation of any required shoring. Rousseau told the command post that he was responding with two firefighters with collapse rescue experience from the FDNY rescue companies.

As operations continued, it was requested to have a surveyor's transit brought to the scene to monitor the building for any movement. A private land surveying company, Kriebel Associates, responded immediately, set up a transit and monitored the building for any movement for the duration of the rescue operation.

As the night grew longer, the temperature continued to drop. A small access hole was cleared to the victim, enabling the rescuers to see him three feet away but still unable to free him through this hole. Doctors brought to the scene were concerned about hypothermia setting in on the victim, complicating his condition. Lombardo requested a torpedo heater with a flexible tube to inject warm air into the void. The demolition company already had one on the site and it was immediately set up to warm Farber as he lay pinned beneath several tons of debris.

Unable to see the entire void surrounding Farber, Lombardo requested a fiber optic camera that would let them see around and behind the victim to get a better picture of what was pinning him. The Niagara Mohawk Power Co. was able to provide this camera for the rescuers' use. Utility companies commonly use these cameras for checking the insides of pipes.

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Photo by Mickey Conboy
A Buffalo firefighter uses a power saw to start cutting the second access hole.

 


6_97_collapse6.jpg
Photo by Mickey Conboy
The final opening of the second access hole. Note the several layers of metal that had to be cut before reaching the victim. Also note the OS&Y valve inside the void.

 

Medical personnel were able to feed Farber liquids through an IV tube. Afterwards, the initial medical assessment paramedic continuously monitored him for any changes in his medical condition. To keep his spirits up throughout this ordeal a portable radio was passed in to him to enable his girlfriend and co-workers to talk to him.

Enroute to the scene from the fire academy, Rousseau contacted the command post to put the team of FDNY rescue firefighters with him in touch with officials at the scene to start their size-up. They were informed that they were responding in an advisory role to provide the incident commander with technical assistance to perform the rescue. Important points that were needed to form a rescue plan included the size of the building, type of construction, the time the collapse occurred, the cause of the collapse, weather conditions, how the victim was trapped, the condition of the victim and what actions had been taken to extricate him. Because of the complexity of the building construction and the massive amount of material trapping the victim, however, it was hard for the rescuers to get a clear picture of the scene until they arrived.