2 High Angle Rescues In 3 Days

Firefighters in Ventura County, CA, performed two dramatic high angle rescues within three days in early March 1996, plucking two people off high voltage towers located just miles from each other. Both rescues occurred during "C" shift and many of the same firefighters participated in both operations.

Photo by Ken Koller
Firefighters responding to the first incident found the victim, suffering from massive burns, sitting atop a concrete electrical tower, awaiting rescue. He and two friends had been rappelling off the tower when he was hit with 20,000 volts of electricity.

The Ventura County Fire Department operates 31 fire stations, each with two truck companies and three rescue engines. (A rescue engine, or "RE," is a pumper that carries much of the same equipment as a truck company, such as extrication equipment and smoke blowers.) Rescue Engine 54 is the only RE in the county equipped with a 75-foot telescoping TeleSqurt/ladder.

On the afternoon of Monday, March 11, the Ventura County Fire Department was notified of an electrocution at the California Highway Patrol's Conejo Grade inspection facility along the 101 freeway in Newbury Park. Engine 35 was dispatched but upon arrival, Captain Bob Ameche, discovered that the victim was not at the truck scales but stranded on the lower crossbar of a 150-foot electrical tower atop a nearby hill overlooking the freeway.

Three teenage boys had been practicing mountaineering skills on the Southern Californian Edison (SCE) tower, climbing up to the lower beam, and then rappelling off. While making one last ascent of the tower to retrieve some equipment he had left behind, a 17-year-old boy was hit with approximately 220,000 volts of electricity that arced from a live power line near where he was standing. Ameche immediately upgraded the incident to a heavy rescue, sending Truck 30, Rescue Engine 54, a battalion chief and a Sheriff's Department rescue helicopter to the scene.

Firefighters needed to make a half-mile hike up a steep hillside through dense brush to reach the base of the tower where the victim was located.

The boy was suffering from third-degree burns over 80 percent of his body. Much of his clothing had blown off in the explosion; his shirt had landed some 200 feet away, sparking a small fire in the brush that was quickly snuffed by his friends. His watch and sunglasses sat near the base of the tower, both melted from the intense heat; the hands of the watch were frozen at 1:34 P.M., the time of the accident. Coins that had been in his pocket were now fused into the concrete of the tower.

As additional equipment and personnel arrived on scene, a decision was made to wait until SCE crews arrived to secure the power to the lines nearest the victim before a rescue attempt was to be made. The boy sat motionless on the beam, his legs draped over the side, his eyes slowly opening and closing as he drifted in and out of consciousness. His friends below called out encouragements to him while MedTrans paramedics used telephoto lenses borrowed from news photographers to assess the condition of the young victim.

Once SCE crews arrived on scene, Truck 30 Captain Scott Hill and Engineer Dave Pumphrey began their climb up the metal rungs along one of the tower's legs. A 30-mph wind buffeted the hillside as the two made their way up the concrete structure, stopping about every 10 feet to tie in their safety line. When Hall and Pumphrey reached the beam where the victim was located, they slowly inched their way out on the four-foot-wide crossmember to where the youth had sat motionless for nearly an hour.

Photo by Ken Koller
Firefighters from Ventura County Truck 30 prepare to make the 150-foot climb to the victim.

Photo by Ken Koller
Truck 30 Captain Scott Hall (left) and Engineer Dave Pumphrey reach the victim and prepare him for the descent to the ground.

As SCE crews continued to work on securing the power to lines below the victim, the two firefighters pulled the boy in from the edge of the tower. The whole time, the teenager was only semi-coherent of his surroundings, knowing something had happened to him but unsure what. While Pumphrey secured himself to the teenager, Hall began rigging ropes for the descent back down to the ground.

With news helicopters hovering overhead, Pumphrey and the boy were slowly lowered down from the tower. After nearly two hours stranded alone, the teenager was once again on the ground. Paramedics quickly started an IV, doused him in saline solution and wrapped him in a blanket as they lowered him into the stokes litter.

A group of 10 rescuers then dashed up a steep trail to await Sheriff's Helicopter 5 for the quick trip to Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks. After being stabilized there, the boy was then airlifted to the Sherman Oaks Burn Center in Los Angeles.

Photo by Ken Koller
In the second incident, firefighters begin their climb up the 200-foot steel electrical tower to rescue an escaped mental patient who had climbed to the top of the structure. He can be seen near the apex of the tower.

Photo by Ken Koller
Amid de-energized wires, the victim is slowly lowered from the top of the tower.

In the days following, the teenager stunned doctors, surviving not only the initial shock but the massive burns that nearly covered his body. Friends held vigil at the hospital and organized fund-raisers and a blood drive for him. Among those donating blood were the firefighters of Engine 35 and Truck 30 who had rescued him a week earlier. With sepsis racking his already weakened body, however, the boy died of his injuries two weeks to the day after an afternoon of fun had turned tragic.

Just two days after that incident, many of the same firefighters were once again called on to rescue another person from atop an electrical tower, in this case an escaped mental patient.

On the morning of Wednesday, March 13, officials at Camarillo State Hospital and Developmental Center realized that one of their clients had walked away from the sprawling facility located just west of the city of Camarillo near the Pacific Ocean.

The facility operates an independent fire department on its grounds. The department was given the station number "59" a number of years ago to ease in dispatch of its units by Ventura County Fire Department. In addition to handling all calls within the facility and surrounding area, Station 59 equipment is heavily utilized by Ventura County firefighters for runs in the surrounding area, coverage assignments and in brush season. Water Tender 59 is dispatched on brushfires throughout the county. The department operates an engine company, brush engine, water tender, squad and a patrol unit in addition to the department chief.

At about 10 A.M., the subject was located scaling a steel electrical tower just south of the facility. The hospital's fire department was notified and engine and Patrol 59 were dispatched to the scene. As the subject continued to climb higher and higher, the Ventura County Fire Department was asked for assistance. Again, Truck 30 and Rescue Engine 54 were dispatched to the scene.

Photo by Ken Koller
Hall and Camarillo State Hospital Fire Department Captain Morly Hense work to bring the victim down from the tower. At this point, they are about halfway down.

The tower was in the middle of an agricultural field and, coupled with heavy rains the day before, access proved to be difficult. To shuttle firefighters in through the shin-deep mud from the staging area, a special call was made for two Ventura County pickups.

Psychologists from the hospital made their way to the base of the tower and tried to convince the man to come down from the tower. Instead, he continued to climb even higher, reaching the apex of the tower over 200 feet above the ground. As Sheriff's Helicopter 5 arrived and circled the scene, the victim became even more agitated, threatening to jump. The helicopter quickly set down in an open field close to the command post and officials were forced to invoke a three-mile, 30,000-foot air space restriction, affecting both nearby Naval Air Station Point Mugu and general aviation at Camarillo Airport, a few miles to the northeast.

For over an hour, firefighters stood ready at the base of the tower and on the road as the subject became restless and repeatedly threatened to jump. A number of times, he stepped to the edge of the thin crossmember on which he was standing, only to sit back down and dangle his feet over the edge.

It was decided to de-energize the entire tower, and once again, SCE crews were called in to handle the task. As they scaled the tower and approached the subject, they handed him a cellular telephone, allowing better contact between him and the negotiators below.

With the subject now in voice contact with psychologists, Hall and Camarillo State Hospital Fire Department Captain Morly Hense began to climb up the steel pegs along the tower, stopping halfway up, awaiting the subject's next move. Once it was determined that the victim wanted to come down, the two firefighters scaled the remainder of the structure to reach him.

As they arrived at the top of the massive structure, Hense and Hall discovered the victim was not only suffering from mild dehydration but he had fallen asleep. Because the steel tower became wider near the base, firefighters needed to employ a different technique of lowering the victim than they had utilized in the last rescue. Instead of lowering him straight down, a guide line was used to keep the victim and rescuer out and away from the tower as they were lowered.

For nearly 20 minutes, Hense and the victim were slowly lowered, finally reaching the outstretched arms of firefighters on the ground. From there, he was loaded on the back of a pickup for the trip to an awaiting ambulance. He was taken to Saint John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, where he was treated for his dehydration and returned to Camarillo State Hospital later in the day.

Officials said they were uncertain why the man had climbed the tower had he seen news reports of the earlier rescue or was it simply a bizarre coincidence?

Ken Koller is a California-based freelance writer and photographer with an interest in the fire service.