Statewide Response To Worker Trapped In Collapsed Building

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.

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.

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


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.

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

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.

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


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.

After being briefed on the type of material trapping the victim and the actions taken, the team of rescue firefighters recommended that the officials on scene call for specific tools and equipment. This was done to insure their availability and prevent delays in the rescue operation; also, if any of the tools or equipment were not available, the rescuers would know that they might have to change their rescue plan.

Photo by Mickey Conboy
Rescuers use an oxyacetylene torch to speed up the cutting operations at the second access hole.


Photo by Mickey Conboy
Interior of the void in which Andrew Farber spent 14 1/2 hours before being rescued. Note the OS&Y valve that created the opening in the void.


The tools and equipment requested included a hydraulic system with a diamond segmented chain saw, cutoff saw and pavement breaker. This tool was requested because the floors were made of reinforced concrete and, if needed, it would facilitate breaking and breaching operations. A half-inch plasma cutter was requested because it could quickly cut the several layers of sheet iron and other metal plates directly above the victim. The tools were procured from local tool and construction equipment companies. Oxyacetylene torches were also requested and the team was told that several setups were already at the scene. The team also asked how much shoring capability was available and was told that a truckload of four-by-four and six-by-six lumber was on scene.

At the command post, Kohn continued to coordinate operations and the requests for assistance from various local, county, state and private agencies. He was being assisted with communications and staging by Mallick, Dave Krieman of the State Health Department, Robert Schultz of the Erie County Department of Emergency Services and chiefs from other volunteer fire departments. The demolition company brought in an 80-ton truck crane from a construction project 30 miles away. With operations expanding, it was felt that if a secondary collapse occurred, the structure could be lifted off any trapped rescuers. Because of stormy weather in the New York City area, the command post was notified that the state police were unable to fly Downey to the scene by helicopter.

Rousseau arrived on the scene at 2 o'clock the following morning with the team of FDNY rescue firefighters. The team members were briefed by officials on the scene in the back of a rescue truck near the building with a monitor from the fiber optic camera set up to show them the void space in which the victim was trapped. The actions taken prior to their arrival were explained and then they were brought into the collapsed building where operations were taking place. The team surveyed the area around the hole leading to the void space trapping Farber. The team was told that no secondary movement had occurred since the initial collapse, and that the surveyor's transit set and continuous monitoring had not detected any movement.

To access the void space, a rescuer had to lie upside down on his back and crawl three feet down into the void. Farber was trapped about three feet into the hole. He said his head and upper body were pinned but he could move his one arm and his legs. He was alert, oriented and in good spirits he just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible.

Photo by Mickey Conboy
Andrew Farber emerges from the void, surrounded by the rescuers who freed him.

Rescuers passed a tape measure past Farber's left shoulder and measured the void space; it extended two feet past his upper body. The OS&Y valve could be seen just in front of his head. Looking into the space above the void, six layers of sheet iron and corrugated aluminum were counted. Members of Buffalo Rescue Company 1 had started another access hole several feet away in the direction behind Farber's upper body. A measurement was taken to pinpoint the location for making the access that would ultimately free Farber. The concrete floor was determined to be in stable condition with no visible cracks from below or visible on the fiber-optic monitor.

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.

The fire was in a 102-year-old Odd Fellows Hall. The building was 3 1/2-story ordinary commercial. Pre-planning had disclosed that there were two large light weight steel trusses in the cockloft, running from front to rear.

Responding units found fire on the second floor rear and heavy smoke and heat on the third floor.

An aggressive interior attack was initiated BUT "all sector and division commanders were ordered to monitor the attic and report to command any fire in the cockloft. Simultaneously the roof sector, rear sector and two interior divisions reported fire in the exterior defensive attack was undertaken. Shortly after one truss collapsed dropping the roof into the third floor. A massive fireball extended 40 to 50 feet into the sky."

The letter closes: "I would like to thank you for your efforts over the hazards of truss roof construction. It is this knowledge that clearly averted a tragedy."

Know Your Buildings!

  • In the 1970s, four firefighters died in the collapse of a steel bowstring truss in an automobile dealership in Wichita, KS.
  • Six Dallas firefighters were pitched into a fire when elongating bar joists pushed down a concrete block wall. Fortunately, they were at the edge of the roof and could be recovered rapidly.
  • Two fire officers in the Midwest barely escaped a bar joist collapse. One was about to step onto the roof when it went in. The other, concerned about the trusses, withdrew his unit just in time. In both the preceding cases the insulated metal deck roof was on fire (if you don't understand this, read Building Construction For The Fire Service, third edition, pages 302-309). It is impossible to vent a metal deck roof adequately and safely. Tests showed that a 64-square-foot vent would be required in a building only 20 feet wide, in which only the roof was on fire.
  • Huge steel trusses in Chicago's McCormack Place were destroyed in 45 minutes by a tremendous fire load of combustible contents. Fortunately, the hydrants were shut off and entry was providentially delayed.

Tests at the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute for Standards & Technology) compared steel bar joists with two-inch nominal wood beams. The wood beams failed in 10 minutes, the steel bar joists in seven.

Steel Is A Thermoplastic Killer

On page 230 of Building Construction For The Fire Service, third edition, I show an apartment house with a large steel beam holding up a substantial load and point out that a fire might cause it to fail. I understand that such a beam failed in a fire in Gwynn County, GA, and cost a firefighter his life. We simply cannot rely on experience, which is blood, sweat and tears.

Four Pennsylvania volunteers died when unprotected steel columns supporting a concrete floor melted. The floor opened up and they fell into the fire. We must become more competent at recognizing death traps before they spring.

A most important use of water at a fire where structural steel is involved, is to cool the steel. Do not believe myths about water causing steel to fail. Structural steel fails at about 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Cooling failing steel simply freezes it in the distorted position (see Building Construction For The Fire Service, third edition, page 259 for an IFSTA statement). A Texas fire department "threw the wet stuff on the red stuff" in a fire in a steel hay shed. The wet half burned hay was "saved." The steel structure was heavily damaged. Do note that cold drawn steel, such as tendons in tensioned concrete, excavation tie backs and cables generally, fails at 800 degrees F less than the temperature of a self-cleaning oven. Failure of a tendon in a T beam caused the loss of a Florida firefighter.

For further information about the hazards of steel, see Chapter 7 of Building Construction For The Fire Service, third edition. Call 301-855-1982 for information about the book.

By Francis L. Brannigan, SFPE

Mickey Conboy, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an FDNY firefighter assigned to Rescue Company 3 in the Bronx.