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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A rescue plan was agreed to by the operations chief from Sheridan Park, Captain Don Stoeckle of Buffalo Rescue 1, the demolition company foreman and the firefighters from FDNY acting as technical advisors. The plan was to remove the masonry debris and cut through one large I-beam (determined safe to cut by all parties involved and an engineer), then cut the layers of metal directly on top of Farber. It was decided that personnel from the demolition company would use their torches to cut the I beam and top layers of metal, and Buffalo Rescue 1 would make the cuts to the bottom layer of metal directly on top of the victim. The plasma cutter called for was not yet on the scene and would be used if needed to speed up the operation in cutting the several sheets of metal or if difficulty was encountered using the torches.

Lombardo was positioned in the first access hole to the void space to monitor conditions in the space as operations were carried out and also communicate with Farber to provide psychological first aid. He would maintain this position for the next three hours before Farber was extricated. Four to six feet of cinder blocks and masonry debris had to be removed before rescuers could get down to the layers of metal covering Farber. A large vactor truck with capabilities to suck up the cinder blocks and masonry debris was set up to help speed up the rescue. This part of the operation was stopped, however, when the equipment began filling the void space with dust, making it difficult for Farber to breathe. The remaining debris was removed by hand.

With the masonry debris removed, rescuers were faced with steel I-beams from the structure's frame and the layers of sheet iron and corrugated aluminum. It was suggested that the rescuers use the torches to cut through the pieces of metal to speed up the operations; previously, they were using gas-powered saws but these caused severe vibrations for the victim and generated a great amount of fumes which started to settle into the void. The torch provided much more controlled cuts with no irritating vibrations to the victim and much less fumes. The sparks and slag it produced were controlled with the use of a pressurized water extinguisher and a charged hoseline. A welder's jacket and protective blanket provided by demolition company personnel were placed in the hole to cover Farber.

The steel I-beam was cut slowly as rescuers checked for any movement indicating it was under strain. The cut was made in minutes, then as each layer of metal was cut it was checked at the first access hole as to how many layers were left to be cut. At one place, a piece of sheet iron had angle iron support ribs welded to it. This slowed the cutting process but not to the point of bringing in the plasma cutter. Between some of the layers of metal were fiberglass and loose styrofoam insulation that had to be cleared away before cutting the next layer or it would start to smoke, slowing the operation. The use of the water can kept the smoke to a minimum.

The final layer was cut with snips and tin shears near the victim and a sawsall to expand the opening away from him. Farber then climbed out of the void with bruises and cramped muscles as his only injuries after being trapped for 14 1/2 hours.

This rescue was a success due to the combined efforts of many individuals from various agencies. Many local officials realized their limited capabilities when it came to this type of rescue and called for assistance from agencies throughout New York State. Since this incident, Gov. George Pataki has signed an executive order authorizing the formation of a regional response urban search and rescue team to respond throughout the state. The executive order also provides for training and equipping the team with the specialized tools and equipment to handle these types of incidents in the future.

Truss Construction: A Warning To Firefighters

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has issued an Alert Bulletin on three wood truss fatalities. The bulletin reports 17 wood truss fatalities vs. one steel truss fatality in the period 1977-95. This might unintentionally serve to dismiss cautions about steel trusses.

Thirteen firefighters died in Brockton, MA, in 1941 "1941!!! Gimme a break." No way! Buildings are forever. The lightweight steel truss is still commonly used in many theaters and other clear span buildings. They were fighting a fire in the walls which had extended to the "attic" when the truss failed. Steel is very strong and steel truss members not much larger than bed rails can carry huge loads.

I recently received a very welcome letter from Chief David L. Parr of the Town of Wakefield, MA. They had learned well the lesson of the Brockton tragedy. The stage was set for another such disaster but in this case command was very alert to the hazard and evacuated the building in timely fashion.