High Angle Rescue Attempt 240 Feet Above The Water

On May 5, 1996, two members of a maintenance crew subcontracted to the New Jersey Transit Co. began a routine painting job high atop the Passaic Avenue rail bridge. That job would become anything but routine that afternoon, when an accident required a difficult and dangerous multi-agency rescue effort.

Photo by Joe Kowalski
High angle rescue team members Darcey Licorish and Maurice Barry make their way out to the victim.

The rail bridge carries NJ Transit passenger trains across the Passaic River between Newark (in Essex County) and Harrison (Hudson County), NJ. Several electric lines with up to 27,500 Kv also run across the uppermost section of the bridge. Half the power was to be turned off on top of the structure to allow the painters to work on one area at a time. At approximately 1:20 P.M., one of the maintenance workers came in contact with a high voltage power line. The other worker descended the bridge and called for help.

Any high angle rope rescue attempt is difficult even under the best conditions; however, this operation had two unusual circumstances that the rescuers had to contend with: accessibility to the accident area was a major problem, and the top of the bridge where the victim was had just been painted and was extremely slippery.

Initial Response

At 1:35 P.M., the Harrison Fire Department dispatcher received a 911 call reporting "a man electrocuted" at the rail bridge on Passaic Avenue. A first-alarm medical assignment consisting of EMS-1, a basic life support (BLS) unit, and Engine 3 was sent to the location. EMS-1 arrived on the scene within two minutes and its crew followed several civilians pointing to the top of the bridge. It appeared that a victim was stuck nearly 250 feet up in the high tension catenary wires. Captain Mike Greene of EMS-1 radioed his initial report as Engine 3 arrived on the scene. Captain Michael Silvers of Engine 3 used field glasses to assess the situation.

The victim was lying across high voltage wires and had been severely burned. The shift commander, Deputy Chief Robert Greene, responded and assumed command. After a short briefing by on-scene members and the surviving maintenance worker, Greene realized additional equipment and resources would be needed to effect a safe rescue. His first request was for NJ Transit to shut down power to all lines on the bridge, then notify the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey's Emergency Response Team (ERT) to respond. The Port Authority police handle the police, rescue and fire protection at the New York City metropolitan area's international airports and bi-state tunnels and bridges. The ERT is one of the most experienced high angle rope rescue units in the country, especially at elevated structures and bridges. Additionally, Greene requested a representative of a local crane and heavy rigging company to check the availability of a crane capable of reaching 300 feet.

Shortly after Harrison received the original 911 call, the Newark Fire Department received a similar notification. Newark responded to its side of the river with a battalion chief, two engines, a truck and Rescue Company 1. The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMD), also in Newark, sent two advanced life support (ALS) units, a rescue unit and its chief of Special Operations.


Greene set up a command post at the base of the bridge. The Newark Fire Department and UMD rescue and medical units responded across the river into Harrison and reported to the command post. At 1:48, a representative of the heavy rigging company arrived along with the Port Authority ERT. An NJ Transit supervisor and electrical engineers also arrived on the scene.

Photo by Joe Kowalski
The crane platform makes its way through the many high voltage lines to the bridge stanchion.

A planning meeting was organized to discuss the safest method of making the rescue. Primary and backup plans were devised. Greene opted for a unified command with NJ Transit supervisors. The ERT would be the lead rescue unit to ascend the structure. Lieutenant George Kelly, tour commander for the Port Authority, would be the operations officer; Sergeant Vinny Perniola, a member of the ERT, would handle the duties of the safety officer. UMD rescue members, qualified in high angle operations, would serve as a backup team and provide ground support. The Harrison Fire Department members were utilized as assistant safety personnel, while the Newark units were released from the scene and returned to their city.

The NJ Transit supervisor told the command post it would take a long time to shut down and bleed off all of the power to the top of the bridge stanchion. While units awaited notification of "power off," a front end loader from the rigging company cleared debris from the road leading to the bridge to make it more accessible to the rescue units and heavy equipment. A large crane arrived on the scene at 2:15 and was set up at the base of the structure.

The plan was for members of the ERT to be lifted on a platform to the top of the bridge and effect the rescue. It was not known if the crane could lift the platform into a proper position for the team to get onto the bridge stanchion, due to the limited accessibility and overhead obstructions, so a dry run with no personnel on the platform was tried first. With much maneuvering, the platform reached the top of the structure. The crane operator reported it was the first time the crane had been extended to its maximum height but onboard computer readouts were still within the safety parameters for the operation, and the platform was returned to the ground. The NJ Transit electrical engineers notified Greene that power was off on all lines to the bridge. The notification came to the command post verbally and in written form to ensure the safety of all rescue members.

The Operation

Five ERT members were lifted to the top of the bridge stanchion: Mike McGarry, Kevin Murphy and Joseph Navas were to remain in the crane platform and Darcey Licorish and Maurice Barry would step off onto the structure and retrieve the victim. ERT member Mike Barry, communications officer, remained inside the crane cab with the operator to keep in constant radio contact with the team on the platform, as well as Kelly, the operations officer.

Photo by Joe Kowalski
The victim is secured in a stokes basket and loaded onto the crane platform.

When the platform reached the top of the bridge stanchion, the team radioed that the platform could not be stabilized enough for the team to step onto the bridge safely the crane was over 250 feet high. The platform was returned to the ground and it was decided to initiate the backup plan. Two members would ascend the bridge and stanchion via the 16-inch-wide maintenance ladder and walk out to the victim. The platform would be raised to the top again and a stokes basket and any additional equipment would be passed over to the members when necessary.

Maurice Barry began the long climb up, followed by Licorish. Once atop the bridge stanchion, the rescue team was faced with steel beams as narrow as six inches to walk on, and most of the beams were freshly painted and very slippery.

As the team reached the victim, members immediately checked the victim for vital signs no pulse was found but cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) would be an impossible task at their position. A stokes basket was passed over to the team, and the victim, who weighed over 240 pounds, was secured in the basket, put onto the platform and returned to the ground. Licorish and Barry wanted to ride down on the crane platform down but it was still too unstable for them to step onto it from the bridge stanchion. They made their way back across the narrow beams to the outside maintenance ladder and down to the ground.

Once the crane platform was returned to the ground, the medical units and the county medical examiner took over. Unfortunately, the maintenance worker had succumbed to his injuries. During the early stages of the operation, Greene requested the rehabilitation unit from the Jersey City Fire Department. Car 26 (Gong Club) responded to the scene and set up a rehab sector. All members involved in the incident gathered around the rehab unit when the operation was complete and discussed the actions taken in an informal critique. There were several obstacles during the incident but none were insurmountable and the cooperation between agencies helped bring the incident to a safe conclusion.

Lessons Learned

  • Incident command. The incident command system (ICS) must be utilized to coordinate resources at all technical rescue operations. ICS has the flexibility and adaptability to be applied to a wide variety of incidents. During multi-agency operations, a unified command is a key component to allow all agencies with jurisdiction or functional responsibility for the incident to jointly develop a common set of objectives and strategies.
  • Communications. Initial communications were a problem but this was handled through the use of portable radios from the different agencies and a consolidated command post. At this incident, each responding agency operated on a different frequency, from low band, 46.180, to UHF frequencies for the rescue team. (If necessary, have each agency involved bring a portable radio to the command post.) The Port Authority tour commander assigned a separate clear channel to the high angle rescue team during the operation, a channel also utilized by the crane operator and safety officer.
  • Planning. When several agencies respond to a technical rescue incident, a meeting is necessary to discuss resources and technical expertise; it is essential to set the strategy and plan how to implement the tactics. At this incident, three agencies were available to perform high angle rescue and through a planning meeting the most experienced unit was chosen. Most emergency responders rely on quickness to establish goals, while technical rescues need planning prior to action. In this case, when the first plan failed to meet the desired objectives, a second course of action was ready.
  • Safety. Because of the many agencies directly involved in the incident and the nature of the operation, safety became a primary concern. The safety sector included assistant safety officers from the crane company, a NJ Transit electrical engineer, the Harrison Fire Department, UMD Rescue and the ERT.

Two important points to consider and monitor are weather and daylight. There was a threat of rain during the entire operation and although the rescue attempt began during daylight hours, it ended in the early evening. Either of these conditions would have halted the operation for safety reasons.

Robert W. Cobb is captain of Rescue Company 1 of the Jersey City, NJ, Fire Department and ex-chief of the Dumont and West Milford Township, NJ, volunteer fire departments. He is also a New Jersey Division of Fire Safety certified Fire Instructor Level II and an ICS instructor for the New Jersey State Office of Emergency Management. James T. Woods is a 12-year veteran of the fire service assigned to Engine Company 1 of the Harrison, NJ, Fire Department. He is a New Jersey state certified EMT-D and New jersey Division of Fire Safety certified fire instructor level II.