A Surprise Down The Chimney

The end result of a civilian running along the rooftops of attached buildings on a winter night was the Philadelphia Fire Depart-ment Communications Center dispatching Ladder Company 1, Battalion 3, Rescue Company 1 and a medic unit to a three-story brick attached dwelling approximately 18 by 45 feet in size.

City police were in pursuit of the civilian late that night in the north central section of Philadelphia. As the civilian made his way over the rooftops, eluding police, he squeezed himself feet-first into the opening of a brick chimney of one of the dwellings and attempted to hide from their view. As police continued their search for the suspect, he lost his grip on the narrow vent pipe in the center of the chimney and gradually began a slow descent through the chimney, into the house.

Photo by Fred Endrikat
The specialized rescue tools used in this incident included atmosphere monitoring equipment (left) and an acoustical listening device (right), most commonly used in building collapse operations to locate buried victims.

From their bedroom, the occupants of the dwelling heard what sounded like a voice in the wall but thought at first they were imagining things. But after about 30 minutes of continuing investigation, they discovered the general vicinity of the intruder and began a barely audible dialogue with him.

The civilian had slipped down about 18 feet from the roof level and had become wedged inside the chimney. His waistline was at the floor level of the second story; his feet were dangling at the midway level between the first and second stories of the building. It was at this point the fire department was called.

Upon arrival, fire department members sized-up the situation and developed an operational plan to extricate the civilian from the chimney. The first consideration was the atmosphere inside the chimney; the heater was immediately shut down to prevent a further buildup of carbon monoxide around the trapped man. Several options for gaining access to the victim were considered. The problem could be approached from the interior of the original dwelling (but the wall area involved was flat and gave no indication of the chimney's location) or working on the chimney from inside the adjoining property might prove advantageous. Further examination of the adjoining vacant property revealed questionable structural integrity, due to exposure to the elements over the years, and an additional course of bricks to penetrate to gain access to the civilian. It was then decided to begin operations on the second story of the original building.

A staging area for tools was set up in the vicinity of the second-floor area involved. Rescuers attempted to establish voice contact with the victim but could hear only a very faint sound. An acoustical listening device (frequently used in building collapse operations to pinpoint the location of buried victims) was then placed in service. This listening device is powered by batteries and consists of two extremely sensitive transmitters/ probes attached to cables that lead back to a control box. The control box consists of a number of meters that register the intensity of the sounds picked up by the probes. By carefully moving the probes and monitoring the corresponding meters, rescuers can "zero-in" on a concealed victim's location. Rescue company members soon had a fairly accurate idea of the location of the victim's head behind the flat brick wall.

As rescue company members were operating the acoustical listening device and bringing other tools to the staging area, members of the ladder company gained access to the roof and used a tape measure to determine the distance from the front of the roof to the center opening of the chimney (taking into account the overhang of the bargeboard and subtracting this distance). This measurement was then transmitted via portable radio to the interior, and a mark indicating this distance was placed on the wall surface involved.

Photo by Fred Endrikat
A portable hydraulic generator.

Rescue company members then used a second tape measure and took a measurement from the exterior face of the brick wall outside the second floor window to the flat wall surface involved, and confirmed the first mark. Ladder company members placed a rope down the chimney opening and asked the victim to let the rescuers know as soon as he could feel the rope. When he acknowledged feeling the rope, he was asked where and replied that he felt the rope with his hands.

By shining a handlight down the chimney opening, it was confirmed that the victim's body was fully extended, with his arms raised above his head. The measurement from the rope was then transposed onto the wall, coordinated with the horizontal measurements. In conjunction with the acoustical confirmation from the listening device, it was decided to attempt to drill just above the coordinated markings, hopefully in the vicinity of the top of the victim's hands. An exact spot where an inspection hole would be drilled was now in place.

A portable hydraulic generator was set up on the exterior of the building; the hydraulic hoses were stretched up the exterior of the building into the second floor window. A hydraulic rotary hammer drill was then attached to the hoses and used to bore a hole near the dead center of the chimney. A one-inch-diameter drill bit was used (after a piece of duct tape was placed on the drill bit as a mark that indicated the depth of a course of brick). The tape was used as a guide to ensure that penetration of the drill bit would not exceed the brick depth and possibly injure the victim.

After the first hole was drilled, the brick dust was cleared from the opening and a handlight was shined in the hole. Rescuers were pleased to see one of the victim's fingertips on the other side the opening. Two more holes were then drilled, one on each side of the original hole. A heel-tool (made of a straight piece of thin tubular metal that has a 90-degree angle placed on both ends of the center shaft) was placed in one of the previously drilled holes and used to secure the brick as the mortar line was gradually chipped away and removed. A three-inch chisel bit (normally a component of the hydraulic-powered demolition hammer system) was then used primarily as a manual chisel in conjunction with a hand-held maul to chip away the mortar joints.

Photo by Fred Endrikat
A portable hydraulic generator with a rotary hammer drill and demolition hammer with various bits and attachments give firefighters several options during rescue operations.

As work progressed in the early stages of the operation, consideration was given to installing shoring in the area involved but it was felt at the time that careful disassembly of the chimney area involved would not cause a significant structural problem. Bricks were removed in a triangle shape (the base of the opening was much larger than the top portion of the opening), reducing potential for a collapse of the chimney wall.

As the mortar between each course of brick was chipped away, bricks were carefully removed, one by one. The continued use of the heel-tool prevented any bricks from falling into the chimney. Once the area around the victim's hands was cleared away, and his hands were completely visible, ladder company members lowered a rope into the chimney from the roof and rescue company members installed wristlets around the victim's wrist, securing them to the rope. This action stabilized the victim's position and prevented any further downward movement of his body.

When enough courses of brick had been removed to expose the victim's head, paramedics performed a medical survey in the accessible area. Work then continued until all bricks down to the area of the victim's hips were removed. As tension was applied on the rope system down the chimney, police handcuffed the victim, and he was slowly and carefully lifted out of the opening created by removing the bricks. The operation took about 50 minutes to complete. Because many fire departments do not have a portable hydraulic generator system with rotary hammer drills or demolition hammers in their equipment inventory, consider what options your department might have to resolve a similar situation.

An electric drill with a smaller bit could have been used to bore an inspection hole. An air chisel (or pneumatic-powered hammer gun with the appropriate size and shape bit) could have been used to loosen the mortar joints. If no power tools were available, simple hand tools (a hammer and a mason's chisel) could have been used to resolve this incident.

No matter what tools were used to complete this task, the key to its successful outcome was the development of a sound operational plan at the beginning and the time spent initially obtaining accurate measurements before drilling operations began. Utilizing the marking obtained audibly by the acoustical listening device and confirming it with the various linear measurements ensured that this rescue operation got off to a good start.

Fred Endrikat, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a lieutenant and 22-year veteran of the Philadelphia Fire Department, assigned to Rescue Company 1. He also is a Task Force Leader for Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Task Force 1.